Mohammed bin Salman is breaking the chains of a ‘regressive’ society – will the rest of the Muslim world follow?

Published: March 23, 2018
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, on October 24, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

During his recent visit to the US, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), sat down with CBS news for what can only be termed as a remarkable interview. Many interesting statements were made, but what was most shocking was undoubtedly his criticism of the law in Saudi Arabia.

According to him, the unisectarian implementation of Shariah in Saudi Arabia since 1979 is to blame for what the country has become over the years, and its radical laws are the reason his generation has suffered the most.

He further elaborated that according to Shariah, there are no pre-defined garments for women, such as the abaya. It is entirely up to women to decide which attire best allows them to be comfortable, while conforming to the commandments of decency. He also spoke against the so-called “extremists” in his country who forbid the mixing of the two sexes – socially, and at the workplace – and gave the example of the way of life during the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Caliphs to support his point.

With these words, and without facing any notable backlash from the religious circles, MBS has given a clear message to the ongoing religious movements across the globe. He has stood up to those who seek to curb the rights of women and institute inequality in the name of Shariah. It is evident from his interview that the people of Saudi Arabia, including the ruling class, have had enough of the selective, yet extreme application of Shariah in their country.

This selective application comes as no surprise for many of us in Pakistan, as time and again, various reformist religious clerics have delivered statements similar to those made by MBS, but in turn received harsh criticism from the pan-Saudi clerics.

When it comes to women, compared to other Muslims countries, women in Pakistan enjoy much more freedom, especially in the context of work and other social activities. However, for Saudi women, simple acts like shopping or taking their kids to school had become a taboo. Needing male guardianship for every activity of their daily lives literally demoted women to second-class citizens, which is contradictory to the basic teachings of Islam.

Thus, for Saudi women, MBS has come as a blessing from God, as no power on Earth seemed to be able to shake the strict Saudi stance regarding women, until now. Credit should be given to MBS for openly refuting the conditioning of Shariah by the Saudi clergy, because only he is in the position to reform the misconceptions that have spread across the kingdom since 1979.

It appears as if all of a sudden the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, a man who once stated that allowing women to drive “exposes them to evil”, no longer has opinions contradictory to the Crown Prince. Additionally, despite Saudi Arabia’s influence in Pakistan, no right-wing clerics here have openly condemned Saudi reforms

It is a fact that proponents of unisectarian Shariah – be it the clergy in Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or other religious-movements in the far east and South Asia – have looked up to Saudi Arabia as a role model since 1979. However, since it is fairly difficult to achieve a state like Saudi Arabia in Pakistan or Afghanistan – a lack of funds, of course, along with the existential deficiency of not having the two Holy Mosques – is why Saudi law has not yet been applied to any other Islamic Republic. Obviously, there are movements far and wide, but with the advent of reforms in the hub of Islam itself, the ultimate goal of replicating Saudi public policy seems to be fading.

There is no doubt Saudi Arabia holds a vital importance in the Islamic world. Due to the presence of the two Holy Mosques, Muslim countries across the globe, whether implicitly or explicitly, have historically come together to support the strict Saudi legal system and social policy. Millions of pilgrims visit Saudi Arabia and idealise it as a landmark state, while condemning the liberal legal system at home. However, the pilgrims will now experience the greatest religio-cultural shock, once they witness public entertainment centres as women drive around and join the workforce alongside men.

In my opinion, though controversial on many fronts, MBS might be the only hope for reform in Muslim countries, especially states like Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is particularly the case when it comes to re-visiting the religious narrative promoted for statehood and public policy. With Saudi Arabia adopting a more liberal and humanistic outlook, and giving freedom of entertainment and relatively more rights to women, the movements calling for the imposition of Shariah in many Muslim countries are now likely to be left without their living idol.

The main reason for this radio silence amidst the Muslim community is entirely because it is not as easy for a Pakistani, or even a Saudi cleric, to denounce the future Saudi King. The King of Saudi Arabia has impunity; he could either liberate his people entirely, or further reduce their basic human rights, and easily get away with either.

The changes MBS is introducing, however, are progressive, and take Saudi Arabia on its way to modernisation. This is a healthy change in the Islamic world, and though I am against Saudi aggression in Yemen and other parts of the Middle-East, I do believe MBS is the only person in the world who can address the regressive mentality of millions of Muslims. After all, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what other Muslim countries do with the vacuum, after the emergence of a “modern” Saudi Arabia? They might follow a similar path of progression into the future, or they might just end up crowning a new ringleader.

Qamber Awan

Qamber Awan

The author a social critic and a contributor of Express Tribune.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.