In the 1930s, when Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, asked the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz, for permission to open a branch of his movement in the Kingdom, the King rejected the request as unnecessary. "The entire Kingdom is a branch for the Brotherhood and all Saudis are Muslim brothers," he replied. The King wanted to close the door firmly on any independent political activity, but he also spoke the truth. If the Brotherhood's goal was to establish a Muslim state and a Muslim society, this already existed in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom itself is the product of a revivalist Islamic movement.
Even so, Islamic opposition movements have long operated in the Kingdom. Some, like the extremists who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979, have used violence to oppose what they consider the Saudi state's insufficiently Islamic character. Al Qaeda and its local offshoots are a part of this violent tendency.
Nonviolent movements are another facet of the Saudi Islamic opposition landscape. The Muslim Brotherhood made its way into the Kingdom in the 1970s at the hands of Egyptian and Syrian teachers. For the next two decades, the Brotherhood was Saudi Arabia's leading nonviolent Islamist group. The Brotherhood emphasized educational and spiritual activities and the plight of Muslims outside the Kingdom's borders. The Muslim Brotherhood's appeal in Saudi Arabia seriously declined in 1990-1991, when Brotherhood affiliates in other Arab countries hesitated to endorse military action to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and to defend the Kingdom against Iraqi aggression.
The erosion of the Brotherhood's standing, combined with the unprecedented environment of criticism of the Saudi state that prevailed after the 1991 Gulf War, led to the emergence of a home-grown Islamic opposition, in the form of Salafis. The Salafis are puritans who claim they only follow the practice and theology of the Prophet Mohamed's followers in the early time of Islam. The Salafis distanced themselves from what they considered the Brotherhood's liberal interpretation of Islam but adopted its organizational structure. Salafis also criticized the Saudi leadership for domestic "wrongdoing" that in their view violated Islamic principles. In short, they demanded that the Saudi state must reform to become more Islamic. The appeal of the Salafi reformers' message, along with their organizational strength (their followers have permeated the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs), earned them wide popularity, especially among youth.
Throughout the 1990s, however, the Saudi leadership rejected their demands for reform, even imprisoning a number of them. Indeed, since the Kingdom's founding, the state won all confrontations with hard-line Islamic opposition forces, and enjoyed strong public backing in doing so. But since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and particularly since the May and November 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh, the Saudi leadership has felt newly vulnerable, and thus has become more receptive to some demands for reform. It has included more than a dozen Salafis, along with other Islamists and liberals, in the National Dialogue, a soul-searching process on reform that began last fall. The attacks have also emboldened progressive Islamists to blame Salafi doctrine and preaching for radicalizing some Saudi youth. Such criticism would have been too politically risky prior to the Riyadh bombings.
In this new environment, splits within the Salafi movement on crucial theological and policy matters are becoming apparent. The Salafis have been unable to offer coherent positions on issues under discussion in the National Dialogue. These issues include the need to update laws and regulations, modernize the educational curriculum, expand women's employment, adopt a more tolerant jurisprudence, open the doors of Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world, and comply with international law.
Recently some of the relatively more progressive Salafis, such as the writer Mansoor Anugaidan and the former judge Abdulaziz Al Kasim, along with Brotherhood figures and independent scholars, have come to represent a new "group," the so-called neo-Islamists. They are distinguished by their receptivity to the forces of modernity. So far, the neo-Islamists are participating constructively in the National Dialogue. They use the Quran, the Sunna, and even Salafi jurisprudence to support their modernizing platform, which includes supporting civil society, introducing a more tolerant religious curriculum, codifying the Sharia, and holding elections for a parliamentary form of government.
Not only are the neo-Islamists' reform ideas a dramatic departure from the Salafi opposition's longstanding discourse, but some of them are, remarkably, more progressive than what senior officials themselves are willing to endorse. Crown Prince Abdullah, for instance, described the neo-Islamists' recent proposal for a constitutional monarchy as a "leap in the dark." It is uncertain whether neo-Islamists could ever manage to build the institutional networks and gain the popular support that have led the Salafis to dominate the Islamic opposition for so many years. But the fact that Saudi Islamists have even put forward such ideas illustrates the dynamism that Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative country, is experiencing.
Jamal Khashoggi is media advisor to the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom. Previously, he was the editor of the Saudi newspaper Al Watan.