A young Saudi Crown Prince wants to bring a kinder and gentler Islam to the desert kingdom.
But it could be a tough and dangerous task.
Since coming to power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is widely known, has been trying to move Saudi Arabia away from Wahhabism, a literal version of Islam that some have compared to the beliefs of The Islamic State.
But reforming Wahhabism will be a major challenge. It has been Saudi Arabia’s dominant brand of Islam since its beginning.
Apostasy is punishable by death. Women have few rights, and only just recently gained the right to drive cars. The open practice of Christianity is illegal. Fellow Muslims belonging to non-Wahhabi sects are viewed as heathens and enemies.
Public beheadings have been commonplace.
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” Mohammed said. “What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
Mohammed also said, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy percent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
Mohammed is said to have already sidelined Wahhabi religious leaders who helped enforce the kingdom’s an extreme form of Islam.
But danger abounds. The last time social reform was attempted, in 1979, militants who viewed the reform as Western and un-Islamic seized the Grand Mosque for 15 days and called for the overthrow of the House of Saud.
Hundreds were killed before Saudi Special Forces and Pakistani commandos finally reclaimed the compound.
Similar forces opposed to reform remain strong in Saudi Arabia today; forces that would again fight to the death to prevent the kind of moderate future the Prince envisions.