Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has pushed to curb the power of hardline clerics and prominent sheikhs who promote the kingdom’s uncompromising version of Islam but analysts warn that moderating the exportation of Wahhabism could be more difficult.
Currently in Europe as part of a drive to woo the West, Mohammed bin Salman has recognised his country’s association with Wahhabism is a problem and moved to impose a more open form of Islam.
The draconian religious ideology has been accused of fuelling intolerance and global terrorism. Dozens of conservative Saudi religious figures have been detained under a crackdown initiated by the prince.
But when asked last month about his decision to break away from the Wahhabists, MBS, as he is often called, denied they even existed.
“What’s Wahhabist?”, the 32-year-old said in an interview with Time magazine. “There is nothing called Wahhabist.”
In a separate interview, he indicated the spread of Wahhabism was a consequence of the West asking Saudi Arabia to use its resources in Muslim countries to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“I believe Islam is sensible, Islam is simple, and people are trying to hijack it,” he told The Washington Post last month, while admitting Saudi governments had lost track of how resources were used abroad.
The prince’s public relations exercise to promote moderate Islam and encourage global investment is now backed up by the Muslim World League, often regarded as a diplomatic arm of the kingdom and heavily funded by Saudi petrodollars.
“For us, there is no Wahhabism. There is an Islam, full stop,” said secretary general Mohammed Al-Issa in Paris in November.
The shift from supporting a decades-long policy of a virulently anti-Western ideology, viewed by some as a basis for jihadism, has been welcomed in many European countries, but analysts warn they need to take independent action too.
“At no time have I heard MBS say he will put a stop to money transfers by private operators or charities supporting these retrograde versions of Islam,” said Michael Privot, director of the European Network Against Racism.
In Belgium, the government terminated Saudi Arabia’s half-century old lease of the Grand Mosque in Brussels last month over concerns it was promoting radicalism. It had been run by the Muslim World League.
Belgian politicians accused the mosque of promoting a “Salafi-Wahhabi” form of Islam that was suspected of “playing a very significant role in violent radicalism”.
The move came after a number of jihadist attacks, including bombings at Brussels airport and a city metro station that killed 32 people in March 2016.
France and Germany have also shut mosques suspected of radicalising and encouraging young Muslims to travel to war zones including Syria and Iraq.
“It was symbolically necessary to take the keys of the Grand Mosque (in Brussels) from Saudi Arabia. They had to show that ‘no, we do not accept this version of Islam’,” said Privot.
Even though the management of the mosque is changing, he warns that “everything else is still there: the publishing houses, websites and TV channels.”
Senior Wahhabi clerics’ teachings broadcast online have endorsed beheadings for offences that include apostasy, adultery and sorcery, while also opposing women’s right to drive or work.
“Social networks play an infinitely more important role than institutional channels, especially among everyday believers”, said Nabil Mouline, a political scientist in Paris. “Wahhabism stands out as the new orthodoxy. It will take years or even decades to deconstruct it,” he said.
The former Muslim faith advisor to the French interior ministry, Bernard Godard, noted the apparently reformist steps MBS has taken but was also cautious.
“The survival of the Saudi political-religious system is based on the alliance of the clerics with the throne,” he said. “MBS can not completely cut the cord.”