Reform is difficult in the best of circumstances. In autocratic states, reform can be, even if desperately needed, dangerous if not suicidal. It can weaken governments or strengthen them, make or break societies. Fighting reformers, demonizing and persecuting them, can also be a tool for autocratic regimes to burnish their orthodox credentials, particularly if the reformer or free thinker is a religious one, as we have seen in Egypt in the cases of individuals such as Islam Al-Buhairi or Ahmed Abdo Muhammad Maher.
MEMRI has recently documented the Arabic-language controversy occurring in Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East over the comments of Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Moghamsy. This is not one of those cases of a cleric promoting intolerance but quite the opposite, of seeking to promote tolerance, albeit by an indirect, if radical initiative. On April 7, 2023 Al-Moghamsy was interviewed on official Saudi Television and advocated for establishing a new Islamic school of jurisprudence and argued that there is a dire need for such a school saying that reexamination of the work of ancient scholars is inevitable. He particularly focused on the need to purge "inauthentic" sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, often weaponized by extremists, from the corpus of accepted Ahadeeth.
The former head of the prestigious Quba Mosque outside the city of Medina, Al-Moghamsy was fired from that position in 2020, supposedly by officials at the Ministry of Endowments, for a tweet calling for the release of certain clerics, but he is a supporter of the reforms occurring in Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS).
Al-Moghamsy predicted he would be attacked for his remarks, and he was. He was condemned by Salafi clerics inside and outside the Kingdom. More importantly, his suggestions were condemned by the highest body of scholars in Saudi Arabia as well as individual top Saudi scholars. On the other hand, liberal writers and commentators praised Al-Moghamsy's proposal and called for it to go even further, calling for even deeper religious reform.
Despite the criticism from the religious establishment, Al-Moghamsy is unbowed. He has a relatively high profile on social media (with 6.6 million followers on Twitter and 2.2 million followers on YouTube, where he has over 8,000 videos) and has continued to post content after the controversy erupted.
Al-Moghamsy's suggestion, which was shot down so quickly by the religious establishment, was religiously moderate if administratively bold. He advocated no real religious change but rather a change in who interprets texts, beyond the four well-entrenched Sunni (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali) and one Shi'a (Ja'fari) schools of fiqh ("jurisprudence"). To outsiders, this may seem mild but for those who take fiqh seriously, it was bold enough.
The fact that this particular religious controversy was, inside the Kingdom, civilized and relatively civil is testimony to how Saudi Arabia is changing. The country is an authoritarian state, no one can deny this, but the stranglehold that Wahhabism had on society and government has been broken. Not only are the once feared religious police gone, but there are a wide range of steps being taken to try to transform society into being more productive, prosperous and happy, the model being more Singapore's Lee Kwan Yu's than anything liberal democratic America might have produced. The irony is not lost to foreign Saudi watchers. MBS's rise broke the power of his relative and rival Muhammad Bin Nayef (MBN). It was Bin Nayef, a close collaborator of the American CIA, who managed the high-wire act of working closely with the Americans on counterterrorism while also serving as a patron of Islamism inside Saudi Arabia. Whatever MBS's faults (including blame for the Khashoggi murder), these are amplified by having brought down the man who Washington's intelligence elite had been most comfortable with for years.
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Managed, authoritarian reform is not lovable by Western standards. But we need only contrast it with other scenarios we have seen in the region. First, there are the imploding failed states. Then the countries that talk about reform but it is just talk. Then there are countries where reformers are killed. I cannot see the controversy about Al-Moghamsy without going back in time and remembering another notable reformer, the Sudanese Mahmoud Muhammad Taha.
Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (by Talal Nayer)
Taha (1909-1985) was a radical Islamic reformer who wanted to liberalize the religion. His vision was far beyond anything Al-Moghamsy has even suggested. For years, Taha peacefully circulated his views in Sudan. In 1968 he was charged with apostasy by a Sudanese court but nothing happened. Sudan's government was overthrown the following year by leftist Nasserist officers led by General Jaafar Al-Nimeiry. But Al-Nimeiry the Leftist eventually became unpopular so he reinvented himself as Al-Nimeiry the Islamist, and egged on by an ambitious Islamist leader named Hassan Al-Turabi, he had Taha, the mild-mannered radical reformer, executed in January 1985. Taha never actually did anything. He was killed for his thoughts and words, for believing in the equality of religions and for being against shari'a. For that he was declared an apostate from Islam and hanged.
A few months later Al-Nimeiry was overthrown while on a trip to the United States (the Islamist Al-Nimeiry had become a close ally of anti-communist United States). Al-Turabi and his allies would take over the entire country four years later, in 1989, plunging the country into 30 years of terror, war, and Islamism from which Sudan had barely emerged before being plunged into war once again in April 2023.
According to the respected Arab Barometer, political Islam may be making somewhat of a comeback in the region, at least in levels of religiosity seen among Arab youth in some countries. The polling was not uniform (and did not include Saudi Arabia). But polling showed an increase among Sudanese (a 10 percent rise, to 62 percent) who believed that religious clerics should influence the government. "Youth are more positively dispositioned toward a role for religion in politics in six of the nine countries included in both waves of the survey... In Tunisia, Iraq, and Lebanon, the difference falls within the margin of error, meaning there has been no effective change." Ironically, as Islamist parties have lost power, the appeal of Islam in power seems to have increased among the young.
Identity, both national and religious identities, will be the key battlegrounds in the process of reform in the region in the years ahead. Man does not live by bread alone and economic wellbeing, should it come, cannot move the heart or inspire the soul. Reformers, whether authoritarian or not, will have to ably maneuver the minefields of religious belief and national unity if they are going to succeed.
The easiest, short-term, path will be to follow the ways of an Al-Nimeiry or of the Egyptian regime under President Al-Sisi, a type of repression wrapped in the banner of one type of Islam or another. Much more difficult is what MBS seems to be trying to do which, is to forge a new national identity, where religion is significant but not superior to other identities and where there is some tolerance, as seen in the case of Al-Moghamsy, but not so much that the entire reform project is wrecked. A place where pride in one's country supplants pride in one brand of chauvinistic religion. Such an effort may not just determine the future of one country, but of the region.
*Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 328, A Sword Of Damocles Over Free Thought In Egypt (And Elsewhere), October 20, 2021.
 See MEMRI TV Clip No. 10280, Saudi Islamic Scholar Saleh Al-Moghamsy: A New School Of Islamic Jurisprudence Must Be Established – I Hope To Be The One Who Does This; There Are Many Exaggerations In The Hadith That Must Be Reevaluated, April 7, 2023.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10606, Saudi Cleric's Proposal To Establish New School Of Islamic Jurisprudence Rejected By Salafists And Hardliners, Praised, Endorsed By Liberals, May 11, 2023.
 Twitter.com/SalehAlmoghamsy, accessed May 11, 2023.
 See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 47, Remembering A Radical Reformer: The Legacy Of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, June 11, 2015.
 Independentarabia.com/node/412926, January 18, 2023.
 Arabbarometer.org/2023/05/a-new-dawn-for-politicAl-islam, May 8, 2023.
 Arabbarometer.org/2023/05/a-new-dawn-for-politicAl-islam, May 8, 2023.