As Saudi society liberalizes, it reckons with hardline past

RIYADH (Reuters) - The Islamist takeover of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 has been turned into a television drama, spotlighting a controversial narrative Saudi Arabia is using to support social changes once deemed un-Islamic.

A trailer for “Al-Asouf”, meaning “winds of change” in Arabic, features explosions and firefights inside the holiest site in Islam, which Juhayman al-Otaybi and his radical followers occupied for two weeks.

The insurrection sent the kingdom in a more conservative direction as its rulers sought to appease hardliners by ceding control over schools, courts and social issues. Morality police enforced modesty and prayer times while banning music and gender-mixing.

Forty years on, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pledged to revive “moderate Islam”, curbing the morality police and lifting a cinema ban.

He blames Saudi Arabia losing its way on the 1979 uprising and the rise of the Sahwa revivalist movement, which criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization and working with the West.

While some scholars criticize that portrayal as a rewriting of history which overlooks the government’s involvement, many Saudis who bristle at the ultra-conservative clergy welcomed it.

Alongside Al-Asouf, which debuted last week, a former Sahwa leader’s televised recantation has sparked a rare national discussion about religion and politics.

“I apologize to Saudi society in the name of the Sahwa, those present and absent. I hope they accept this apology,” said the preacher, Ayed al-Garni.

“I am now with the moderate, centrist Islam open to the world, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has called for. That is our true religion.”

Garni, with 19 million Twitter followers, was banned from preaching in the 1990s and arrested over his views, but later adopted pro-government stances.

He joins a growing list of clerics who have reneged on hardline positions as Prince Mohammed arrests critics of his push to liberalize society.

In 2017, the kingdom’s top clerical body endorsed ending a ban on women driving which they had justified for decades.

Adel al-Kalbani, a former imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque who has long criticized singing, was present in January when the state announced new entertainment offerings, and appears at card game tournaments which hardliners consider illicit.

In March, Kalbani also retracted his position that Shi’ite Muslims are infidels.


Garni’s comments were broadly welcomed, but in a population mostly born after 1979, many Saudis resent how religion has been used to keep them from having fun.

“This apology of yours is not enough, because the price was steep,” tweeted actor Nasser al-Gassabi, the star of Al-Asouf.

A young Saudi agreed, calling it “too little, too late”.

Over nighttime meals during the fasting month of Ramadan and under the Twitter hashtag “Remind generations of the Sahwa’s deeds”, Saudis recounted prohibitions imposed by clerics, both state-linked and nominally independent. Under Prince Mohammed, many edicts have been reversed.

“Apologising means turning a page on this experience and not returning to it,” tweeted university professor Abdelsalam al-Wail. “It differs from abandoning a sinking ship.”

Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of English-language newspaper Arab News, wrote that Garni’s remarks came “nowhere close to undoing the harm” and should be the start of “a necessary course correction”.

Some urged humility. “Today the Sahwa got off their (high) horse,” tweeted novelist Badria al-Beshr, calling on people to carry forward reforms instead of attacking the group.

Others highlighted the state’s historical role in empowering clerics it now suppresses. One tweet showed a 1981 speech by the late King Fahd, who was then crown prince, saying: “The Sahwa is not a danger to anyone nor a threat to any society...”

Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad; editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Jason Neely