On March 30, 2012, a little-noticed but remarkable document from young Saudis was posted online.
Beneath its cumbersome title — “Statement of Saudi Youth Regarding the Guarantee of Freedoms and Ethics of Diversity” — it challenged a central tenet of the kingdom’s ultraconservative religious establishment: That it has the right to impose its strict interpretation of Islam on all Saudis.
“No one can claim monopoly of truth or righteousness in the name of Islamic law (Shariah),” declared the statement, many of whose 2,600 signatories were in their 20s. “We are young citizens who seek to create a … community that follows the example of the prophet, peace be upon him, under pluralism of thought … [and] we reject this patriarchal guardianship which forbids us from practicing our God-given right to think and explore for ourselves, as we can listen and judge.”
The statement underscored the religious ferment brewing in the kingdom, especially among young people. Official religious orthodoxy has ruptured, religious attitudes are more fluid and diverse, and there is greater questioning of long-held assumptions.
How this youthful religious exploration plays out will be key to the kingdom’s governance in the years ahead because of the Saudi government’s close alliance with a clerical establishment that sees its primary charge as upholding — and spreading — the austere, anti-intellectual and inflexible version of Salafi Islam known as Wahhabism.
Young Saudis overwhelmingly want the kingdom’s commitment to Islam to remain firm and in their personal lives they remain devout, observant followers of their faith.
But increasingly, they demonstrate less willingness to accept their religious heritage without re-examination, as their parents did. They are more willing to question a fatwa or ignore it; some are daring to openly discuss taboo subjects like atheism. Increasingly too, they favor a religious practice that is more voluntary, less enforced by the state, and more respectful of differences among Muslims.
Portending a crisis of religious authority in Saudi Arabia, young people complain that state-employed clerics are too negative, always stressing what’s forbidden, and that they focus too much on trivial matters without addressing the problems of youth and morally perplexing issues of modern life.
“Before, if anyone talked about religious [things], I listened,” said a 25-year-old high school teacher in the religiously conservative town of Buraida, north of Riyadh. “But now, even if you are a religious man, I don’t trust you because you always talk about things that are not very important for society. Sometimes society has a lot of problems and you are silent. I don’t want that.”
A 28-year-old from Asir studying for his doctorate abroad declared in an interview: “I do not trust Saudi [religious] scholars. Ones from Kuwait and Egypt are more open-minded, they are telling the truth. Ours are not telling the truth. They lost their credibility.”
Disillusioned with official sheikhs, young Saudis are searching elsewhere, even abroad, for spiritual guidance. Two of the most popular religious figures among young Saudis do not hold official positions. Like most Saudi clerics they are accessible on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as their own websites.
Salman Al Audah is a long-time critic of the government and his praise of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought sanctions from the Saudi government: He was banned from traveling abroad and his popular television show was canceled. By contrast, Mohammed Al Arifi, a professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University, supports the government unreservedly. Sometimes called the “Tom Cruise of Wahhabism” because Saudi women regard him as handsome, he is less scholarly than Al Audah, using an earthy humor to attract a youthful audience.
Some young Saudis are going even further in a search for new ways to interpret Islam. For the past three years, a small group has met outside the kingdom in neighboring states to discuss such matters at an annual conference called Ennahda ["Renaissance"] Forum.
“We want to talk about how to change. ... So we created a forum to just talk and share ideas with a high ceiling of freedom of speech,” said Mustafa Al Hasan, 36, an assistant professor of Qur’anic exegesis at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran and one of the Forum’s organizers.
In an interview, Al Hasan said that between the annual conference people are meeting in small, informal discussion groups that don’t follow any particular sheikh, which he called a new development in the kingdom’s religious landscape. Participants are mainly 18 to 30 years old, he added, and insist on one thing: no violence.
“They don’t trust the old form of Islam, the old clerics,” Al Hasan said. “They are against the old and not yet to the new. They are thinking.”
Unlike in the past, youths today are not mainly concerned with what Islam prescribes about how to dress, how to wear their hair or how to deal with the opposite gender, Al Hasan said. Rather, their “main concern now is citizenship, freedom, human rights. … We want to have these ideas connected to Islamic thinking.”
These trends are likely to grow for several reasons, including easy access to the Internet and exposure to other cultures during study overseas. Some ultraconservative clerics, fearful that young Saudis are straying from the Wahhabi tradition, have strenuously objected to the government’s overseas education program, which currently supports 145,000 Saudi students in 30 countries, about half of them in the United States.
Young Saudis also are being affected by the intensified debate about Islam’s role in public life sparked by the Arab Awakening and the new preeminence of Islamist political parties, particularly in Egypt. They of course come to this debate from a different starting place than their Tunisian or Egyptian peers, who reached adulthood under secular-oriented states. For Saudis, the dilemma is not so much Islam’s leading role in governance and public life — which most are not challenging — but rather the enforced dominance of one sect, that is, Wahhabism.
The government is sensitive to these religious trends and has already made it clear that it won’t tolerate much theological dissent by arresting a handful of Saudis whose tweets about religious topics were deemed blasphemous. Clerics, both inside and outside the government, are also nervous as they see their influence waning.
“Among young people and the generations of tomorrow, I think religious people won’t have that much power over them,” said Muhammad Al Ojaimi, a 30-year-old Islamist political activist who works with Saudi youth and was instrumental in drafting the online statement.
“The flaws of being governed by religious principles are beginning to show now, Al Ojaimi added. “It’s not really the right way to govern people.… It’s just starting to [be accepted] that people should be governed not by religion but by laws in general, disregarding whatever religion has to do with them.”
Caryle Murphy is a veteran journalist specializing in the Middle East, and author of “Passion for Islam" and "A Kingdom's Future: Saudi Arabia Through the Eyes of Its Twentysomethings." She was a 2011-2012 public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.