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Secularism in an Islamic State: the case of Saudi Arabia


Stephane Lacroix


Stephane Lacroix, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sciences Po, Paris




One common idea in the literature on Saudi Arabia is that the dominant repertoire of legitimacy – both for the state and its opponents – and the main provider of social and political norms in the kingdom is religion (in this particular case, a specific brand of islam, “Wahhabism”). A closer look at recent Saudi history, however, suggests a much more nuanced view.

From the early days of the modern Saudi state, and even more since the 1960s, the Saudi royal family has been keen to justify its rule with profane claims: the Al Sa‘ud, it was said, were the most capable of developing and modernizing the country, bringing prosperity to its subjects. A class of «intellectuals», who were to be the spokesmen for the state’s «modernizing» legitimacy (just like the ‘ulama were the spokesmen for its religious legitimacy) was even created from scratch with the support of the state who gave «intellectual» institutions tremendous resources. Similarly, this «modernizing» intent led the government to create «modern» laws and institutions that could not be justified in straightforward shari‘a terms (examples include commercial courts and labor laws). This evolution prompted in the 1960s the rage of mufti Muhammad bin Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d. 1969), who issued angry fatwas and circulated fiery epistles condemning those «additions to the shari‘a» as «impiety». Those evolutions continued after Al al-Shaykh’s death, although his successors, who were part of an official religious establishment which had been largely coopted, were much less vocal then him in denouncing them. This situation was made possible by the very structure of the Saudi state: a union of two distinct elites, the princes and the ulama, with different (and complementary) prerogatives, amounting to a form of separation of powers. Though it would be very exaggerated to compare this separation, based on Ibn Taymiyya’s conception of “legitimate politics” (al-siyasa al-shar‘iyya), to a genuine secularization, it has – together with its modern reinterpretations, which I shall have a look at - provided much of the justifications for the “secular” actions taken by the Saudi government.

The image of a Saudi society that has always been overly conservative must also be put into question. Accounts from the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, suggest that part at least of Saudi society was largely secularized. When a state television was created, women singers could be heard on it. In Jeddah, cinemas existed and attracted the local middle class. The 1950s and 1960s were also a time when, concomitantly with the state’s support for the new class of «intellectuals» outlined above, forms of secular activism started developing in the kingdom. Nasserists, baathists and even communists attracted thousands of sympathizers. A couple of secular coup attempts even took place, in 1955 and 1969, but both blatantly failed. This legacy of secular activism persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s, although it took new and sometimes less political forms, as in the case of “modernism”, a current of social and literary critique which had its heydays in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s, many of those secular activists, whatever their background, started claiming the label «liberal». Since then, the so-called «liberal» movement (generally referred to by its Islamist foes as “secularist” (‘ilmani)) has been one of the key players in the Saudi political-intellectual debate.

Secularism – in its different social and political senses - has thus been a reality in Saudi Arabia for decades. It has, however, never really been studied per se, and so this will be the aim of my research. This research, therefore, should be two-fold: first, I will trace the occurrences of secular behaviours and/or references in both Saudi state and society throughout the modern period. I will examine how those behaviours and references have been framed, and how they have been received. I will then focus on the more recent evolutions. This is especially important since the debate on the nature of Saudi state and society - and especially the place of religion in them - has taken great proportions since the late 1990s, with the emergence of a semi-open public sphere. One question, among others, has been about the role of the ulama in the state. This is at stake, for instance, in the attempts to codify the shari‘a once and for all, since the adoption of a unified and fixed code could lead to eventually diminishing the role of the religious establishment (because there would be no need for constant religious (re)interpretation anymore). Also of importance are the state’s efforts starting in the mid-1990s to promote Saudi nationalism, therefore encouraging the emergence of another mostly secular repertoire of legitimacy (I say “mostly” because nationalism in Saudi Arabia is not devoid of religious references). Finally, the broader issue of a (willing or unwilling) “secularization” of social norms – as pointed out recently by a few scholars, especially those working on gender – could be looked at.

While this Islam-secular debate has undoubtedly been primarily a “Saudi” debate expressed in Saudi terms (one key aspect has revolved around Wahhabism, what it truly means and how it can be reinterpreted), it should be added that, in a globalized world, this debate has obviously been influenced by similar debates outside the kingdom. Also, it has influenced the debate in other countries, especially in the Gulf where there are similarities with the situation in Saudi Arabia. This paper will thus also offer an opportunity to ask whether some of my conclusions can be generalized to the rest of the Gulf, and so whether there exists a distinctively khaliji form of Islam-secular debate.

To conduct this research, I will rely on a variety of sources, written and oral. Having worked on Saudi Arabia for almost a decade now, I have gathered hundreds of Arabic books and magazines brought from the kingdom, as well a huge internet archive (including a lot of material not available anymore). I also have a lot of contacts in the kingdom, from different backgrounds – conservative and secular. Finally, in order to monitor the most recent debates, I will follow the press and the internet closely. In terms of time frame, given the fact that I also have other commitments, I believe I will need a year to do the research and write the paper.