Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel

Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel


Like other clerics, he saw no religious reason to bar women from driving but said he was against changing the status of women in ways that he said violated Islamic law.

“They want her to dance. They want her to go to the cinema. They want her to uncover her face. They want her to show her legs and thighs. That is liberal thought,” he said. “It is a corrupting ideology.”

Still, some find the recent moves encouraging.

“If they have to take serious measures to stamp out the uglier parts of Salafism that permeate Islam around the world, it could be on the whole quite a good thing,” said Cole Bunzel, a fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

But a cleric who works in education in Riyadh said he worried that pushing the conservatives too far could drive the most extreme ones underground, where they could be drawn to violence.

Precedents for such blowback dot Saudi history.

In 1979, extremists who accused the royal family of being insufficiently Islamic seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, shocking the Muslim world. Later, Osama bin Laden founded Al Qaeda after breaking with Saudi Arabia over its reliance on Western troops for protection. More recently, thousands of Saudis have joined the Islamic State for similar reasons.

But precedents also exist of clerics adopting changes they initially condemned.

Many fought the introduction of television; now, they have their own satellite channels. Others resisted education for girls; they now send their daughters to school.

One cleric said he had not wanted his wife and daughters to have cellphones at first either, but later changed his mind. The same could happen with driving.

“With time, if society sees that the decision is positive and safe, they will accept it,” he said.

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