Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

April 21, 2011

The surge in Arab revolutions since January has surprised many scholars and policymakers for one reason: it is not currently being orchestrated by the much-studied Islamists. Since the 1970s, Western academics have preferred to view the Arab world through the prism of Islam, which has become the constant variable that explains everything - stagnation, resistance to democracy, oppression of women, discrimination against minorities and recently terrorism. The majority of academics ignored a limited number of texts written by nuanced scholars who argued that we must go beyond Islam to understand the many social, political and economic problems of the region.

Yet the Western obsession with security after 9/11 and with so-called "Islamic radicalism" meant that the academy had to follow suit and privilege the study of Islamism. Seeing Islam as the only explanatory factor allowed policymakers in the West and the Arab world to avoid facing unpleasant realities such as demographic explosions, unemployment, poverty, corruption, authoritarian rule and the abuse of human rights. The recent fall of authoritarian Arab regimes in Tunisia and Egypt at the hands of young and frustrated populations has proved that Islam alone can never and will never explain the Arab world. Yet the metanarrative persists.

Stephane Lacroix's book is a product of the opening of the Saudi research field to French scholars in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001. After decades of so-called "Saudi studies" being monopolised by Anglo-Saxon scholars, French academic institutions saw a window of opportunity at a fleeting moment of worsening Saudi-American relations. Institutional bridges were built between one of the most prestigious French political science institutes and the King Faisal Foundation, whose director, Prince Turki al-Faisal, was a key figure in the Saudi intelligence services. The result was several books on Saudi Arabia, including the one under review.

Awakening Islam focuses on the failure of Saudi political Islam and the fragmentation of its religious field, echoing the arguments of Olivier Roy and many other observers. Building on previous research, Lacroix offers a detailed and elaborate description of the main Saudi contestants. He links Saudi Islamism to the exiled Arab Muslim Brotherhood cadres who in the 1960s were welcomed in Saudi Arabia. The result, in his opinion, has been a fusion with local Saudi Salafi discourse, creating in the process what is commonly known as al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, the "Islamic awakening". This fusion had a solid institutional base in Saudi schools and colleges of religious higher education.

The Islamic awakening was not monolithic. It evolved, mutated and fragmented into mainstream and splinter groups, all claiming to be heirs to an unprecedented Islamic renaissance. Lacroix acknowledges that Saudi Islamists were not simply blind followers of Arab Islamists, but he does not give sufficient consideration to the fact that this statement became an excuse propagated by official Saudi figures in order to absolve their own indigenous Islamists from any wrongdoing after 9/11. Although he acknowledges its limitations, Lacroix does seem to endorse the official Saudi view.

In explaining why the religious field fragmented, Lacroix does not give sufficient attention to state oppression as a determining factor. Instead, he argues that the state encourages "sectorisation", a strategy of fragmenting intellectual and religious communities.

However, Lacroix explains the outcomes of the awakening failure. In his view, an Islamo-liberal trend that is more in tune with global discourse on democracy and human rights from an Islamic perspective emerged in the late 1990s. This is wishful thinking.

The book invokes the contested notion of "post-Islamism", a phase that scholars such as Asef Bayat believe has been reached in several Muslim countries. It refers to the proliferation of the discourse of human and civil rights within Islam after a long time spent on emphasising duties. In Saudi Arabia, Islamists are constantly defining and redefining themselves, and some may have moved towards post-Islamism.

But the mistake is to see Islamism through the sole prism of success or failure. It is an evolving project that mutates. One of the main shortcomings prevalent in research on it is privileging text over context. Not many scholars take a grass-roots approach that highlights class, urbanisation, education and the other factors that contribute to its strengthening, weakening or total failure.

Awakening Islam is a product of serious scholarly interpretive and linguistic skills, and a work that should appeal to specialists, although novices may find it challenging.

Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

By Stéphane Lacroix. Harvard University Press. 384pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674049642. Published 28 April 2011

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