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Saudi Arabia - Religion

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, told a crowd of investors at a conference 25 October 2017 that he was attempting to “return Saudi Arabia to the moderate Islam that once prevailed” before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The problem is that extremists imposed their opinions on Saudi society after 1979, particularly after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution which opened the door to biddings on exaggerations, extremism and more extremism in the Kingdom.

The crown prince also announced Saudi Arabia would "eradicate promoters of extremist thoughts", saying the country was not like this in the past. "We are returning to what we were before - a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world," the 32-year-old heir to the throne said.

He stressed that 70 percent of Saudis are younger than 30 and vowed “not to spend another 30 years of our lives living under extremist ideas.” By weakening the clerical establishment and making clerics simple government workers, Mohammed Bin Salman would be able to give women more rights. Saudi women were allowed to drive, starting in September 2017, and then given permission to attend sports matches with their families.

In September 2017, Saudi police arrested dozens of religious figures, including Islamic preachers Salman al-Awdah and Awad al-Qarni, who remained behind bars.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman launched a crackdown against activists, religious figures and opponents in early 2018. In July 2018 Saudi Arabia arrested prominent preacher and scholar Safar Al-Hawali just days after he published a book criticising the ruling family. Three of his sons - Abdul Rahman, Abdullah and Ibrahim - were also detained. Rights groups said Abdul Rahman and Abdullah were reportedly taken into custody while attending a family wedding on 11 July 2018. While Hawali and his son Ibrahim were arrested the following morning.

A Sunni scholar and leading figure in Saudi Arabia's Sahwa reformist movement, Hawali became known almost three decades ago as the leader of the Sahwa movement, which advocated for democracy in Saudi Arabia. He was previously detained for opposing the ruling family. Hawali was jailed in the 1990s for opposing his country's ties to US troops leading a military operation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In 1993, he was banned from public speaking and dismissed from his academic posts along with prominent cleric Sheikh Salman al Awda. While no charges were pressed, the two were accused of aiming to incite civil disobedience. They were arrested again in 1994 but soon released.

Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice. Some leading government and religious officials, including the king and crown prince, made public statements against extremism and advocated tolerance and moderation. In his annual Hajj message on October 18, King Abdullah urged Muslims to deal with others “with a forgiving humanity that does not reject others just because they believe in different religions.” In a joint statement on July 10 commemorating the start of Ramadan, King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman emphasized the Quranic verse, “there is no compulsion in religion,” and stated, “we will not allow extremists to misuse religion in order to realize their vested interests.”

The US government estimates the total population at 27 million (July 2013 estimate). Approximately 85 to 90 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims who predominantly adhere to the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence. Very small but growing numbers of Muslims, particularly in and around Jeddah, exhibit some diversity of Islamic thought and practice.

Shia constitute 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia in the country are “Twelvers” (followers of Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi, whom they recognize as the Twelfth Imam) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Jafari school of jurisprudence.

Most of the remaining Shia population are Sulaimaniya Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Jafar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 700,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they represent the majority of the province’s more than one million inhabitants. Pockets of Zaydis, another offshoot of Shia Islam, number approximately 20,000 and exist primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

The government considers its legitimacy to rest in part on its custodianship of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina and its promotion of Islam. The government’s official interpretation of Islam is based on the Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence and is influenced by the writings and teachings of 18th-century Sunni religious scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a return to what he considered to be the practices of the early Muslim era and urged Muslims to adhere to the strictest interpretation of Islam. Outside the country this variant of Islamic practice is often referred to as “Wahhabism,” a term the Saudis generally do not use.

The Islamic judicial system is based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna, and on legal opinions and fatwas (rulings) of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars (ulema). Established in 1971, the council is an advisory body of 20 persons that reports to the king. The Basic Law recognizes the council, supported by the board of research and religious rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. It is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists. Government universities provide training on all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, but focus on the Hanbali school; consequently, most Islamic law judges follow its system of interpretation.

The calculation of accidental death or injury compensation is discriminatory. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, the plaintiff is only entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; all other non-Muslims are only entitled to receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive. Judges may discount the testimony of non-practicing Muslims or individuals who do not adhere to the official interpretation of Islam, and they may disregard the testimony of a non-Muslim in favor of the testimony of a Muslim. In adherence to the government’s interpretation of the Quran, courts place the value of a woman’s testimony in capital punishment cases as one-half that of a man’s.

The Majlis al-Shura (the Consultative Council) is responsible for advising the king and can debate and propose legislation for approval by the Council of Ministers. The king appoints the Consultative Council’s president and 150 members. There are only six Shia members. In January the king appointed 30 women to the previously entirely male council, two of whom are Shia. The Consultative Council’s members are appointed to four-year terms and are limited in the number of terms they may serve.

Mosques are the only public places of worship, and the construction of churches, synagogues, or other non-Muslim places of worship is not allowed. The MOIA is financially and administratively responsible for Sunni mosques, which according to MOIA officials, number around 60,000, including 15,000 Friday mosques (larger mosques that host Friday prayers and include a sermon). The MOIA retains approximately 60,000 Sunni imams and 15,000 Sunni Friday khateebs (sermon leaders) to staff these mosques. Imams are not considered government employees and typically hold additional employment. Imams require MOIA approval to deliver sermons, for which they receive monthly “incentives” of approximately 2,000 riyals ($533). The two mosques in Mecca and Medina do not come under MOIA jurisdiction, but rather are the responsibility of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Shrines, which reports directly to the king.

According to the 1992 Basic Law, Sunni Islam is the official religion and the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based on the government’s application of the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.

The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion. Shia and other Muslims who did not adhere to the government’s interpretation of Islam faced political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, underrepresentation in official institutions, restrictions on religious practice, and restrictions on places of worship and community centers. The government detained individuals on charges of insulting Islam, encouraging or facilitiating conversion from Islam, “witchcraft and sorcery,” and for engaging in private non-Muslim religious services.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) continued to harass and abuse individuals for religious reasons at a similar rate as the previous year. The CPVPV continued to receive periodic online criticism, both in traditional and social media. There were also reports some citizens had resisted CPVPV officer harassment.

The CPVPV, a semiautonomous government agency, at times referred to as the “religious police” in international media, has authority to monitor social behavior and enforce morality consistent with the government’s interpretation of Islam and in coordination with law enforcement authorities. The 1980 law that formally defines the CPVPV’s mission describes it as “guiding and advising people to observe the religious duties prescribed by Islamic Sharia, and to prevent committing [acts] proscribed and prohibited [by sharia], or adopting bad habits and traditions or taboo [sic] heresies.”

The purview of the CPVPV includes public socializing and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Muslim faiths or failing to respect Islam; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “magic” for profit; and committing or facilitating lewdness, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling. Full-time CPVPV field officers are known as mutawwa’een; they do not wear uniforms, but are required to wear identification badges and can only legally act in their official capacity when accompanied by a regular policeman.

Government revision of school textbooks to remove objectionable content continued, but was delayed repeatedly by bureaucratic obstacles. Some intolerant content remained, even in revised textbooks, including justification for the social exclusion and killing of Islamic minorities and “apostates;” claims that Jews, Christians, and Islamic minorities do not properly adhere to monotheism; and intolerant allusions to Shia and Sufi Muslims and other religious groups.

The textbooks stated apostates from Islam should be killed if they did not repent within three days of being warned, and described Islamic minorities and Christians as heretics. Some Quranic passages likening Jews and Christians to apes and swine continued to be included. The textbooks also stated treachery was a “permanent characteristic” of non-Muslims, especially Jews, propagated conspiracy theories that international organizations such as Masons support Zionism, and presented historical forgeries, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as fact.

According to the media, police detained and imprisoned persons on charges of “sorcery”, “black magic”, and “ witchcraft.” Authorities reportedly charged more than 100 people with “sorcery” and “witchcraft,” and the CPVPV arrested 215 “magicians,” according to Abd al-Latif Al al-Sheikh, head of the CPVPV. The CPVPV continued a campaign against sorcery and established a field unit in 2012 to arrest “sorcerers and charlatans” and refer them to relevant authorities, describing sorcery as one of the “key causes of religious and social instability in the kingdom.”

On January 09, 2015 a liberal Saudi blogger who was accused of insulting Islam has been flogged in public, despite denunciations of the practice by the United States and rights groups. Raif Badawi received 50 lashes after Friday prayers as worshippers looked on near a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. Badawi, co-founder of a web site called the Liberal Saudi Network, was arrested in 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes after being charged with offenses including insulting Islam. He was expected to have 20 weekly sessions of 50 whippings each until his punishment was complete. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $266,000.

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Page last modified: 28-07-2019 18:58:44 ZULU