Wahhabism, the predominant interpretation and institution of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, authorizes unparalleled exertion of power over persons of minority status. It is imperative to understand the history of this influential religio-political school of thought. Without a clear understanding of the philosophy of this economic powerhouse in the most volatile region in the world, one cannot sufficiently grasp the culture and mores maintaining the prolific conservatism suppressing equality and preserving concentrated power. Therefore, by examining the evolution of social justice and women’s rights, one can ascertain the prognosis of Saudi Arabia in the international arena.
Literature Review and Analysis
In the 1740s, an ardent Islamic preacher by the name of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab advocated for a societal return to the Medina, restoring Islam and sharia to the pre-medieval days of the Prophet, thus instituting a raw, unadulterated, rigid religion. Infidels observing shirk “(polytheism, idolatry),” denying the “tawhid, the oneness of God,” vehemently opposed al-Wahhab’s exclusive philosophy, imperiling he and his few followers (Nevo, 1998, pp. 37). “Eventually the Amir of Dir’iyya…Muhammad Ibn Saud…took him under his patronage” (Nevo, 1998, pp. 37). Muhammad Ibn Saud, desiring territorial expansion, adopted al-Wahhab’s tenet that “religion and state are indissolubly linked. Without the coercive power of the state, religion is in danger, and on the other hand, without the shari’a the state becomes a tyrannical organization” (Nevo, 1998, pp. 37). Crusading in the name of anti-tyranny, Muhammad Ibn Saud pillaged every town and tribe he came across, compelling village inhabitants to submit to his authority. Two hundred years later, after affirming al-Wahhab’s Hanbali philosophy constitutionally, under the auspices of King Abd al-Aziz, “founder of the third Saudi state,” modernized the nation, gentrifying the industry with advanced technology and communication (Nevo, 1998, pp. 38). Despite this violation of sharia, the ulama, Muslim scholars and academics delineating the confines of the law, sanctioned the king’s dismissal of perceived truth for the promulgation of economic efficacy.
Soon thereafter, though some of the ulama were skeptical of the amalgamation of Western/imperialistic technology and Islamic fundamentalism, after the discovery of oil in the region, these apprehensions were quelled by the influx of business investors and international attention. “An abstemious, austere, and pietistic society suddenly was face-to-face with the values and technology of a comparatively secular and materialistic West” (Oschenwald, 1981, pp. 272). These premonitions, however, were stymied by religious caveats to thwart any and all efforts to subvert the religio-political state. Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy site in Mecca, is no longer the sole source of revenue for the religio-political state. Now, progress and non-Wahhabi actors exacerbated this internal conflict. However, with King al-Aziz and his successors endorsing the amelioration of infrastructure and the domestic oil industry, the conflict was soon remedied and the ulama pacified.
In the early twentieth century, Ibn Saud, detesting the Rashidis’ usurpation of Wahhabi-cherished holy sites, their tyrannical rule, and the expulsion of his people, abnegated, for political purposes, the inequality ubiquitous among the various tribes “to…replace it with a sense of national cohesion,” cementing his authority throughout the region as a peacemaker and lover of justice (Kjorlien & Michele, 1994, pp. 37). Moreover, after this “reassertion of Saudi control” (Kjorlien & Michele, 1994, pp. 37), Ibn Said recognized the need for technological advancement. This liberal agenda, which challenged the ultra-conservative theology of the Bedouin-Ikhwan and ulama, permeated into other areas such as social justice (Kjorlien & Michele, 1994, pp. 37, 41). “The ‘ulama’ began to seriously question the policies of the government. These included the introduction of television and radio, Western military hardware, the outlawing of slavery, the showing of movies and the education of women” (Kjorlien & Michele, 1994, pp. 39).
As of 1950, “There [were] no institutions of higher learning in the country” (Trial & Winder, 1950, pp. 123). The education system, exclusively reserved for males, capped at secondary schools (Trial & Winder, 1950, pp. 122). Furthermore, the curriculum within elementary and secondary schools consisted of religious instruction, Qur’an memorization and “versification,” and some arithmetic and natural science courses (Trial & Winder, 1950, pp. 123, 125). Concerning class structure, quoting Philip K. Hitti, the authors write, “‘Girls were welcome to all the religious instruction in the lower grades of which their minds were capable, but there was no special desire to guide them further along…the path of knowledge’” (Trial & Winder, 1950, pp. 123). This unfortunate circumstance of educational ostracizing has led to a plethora of men and women leaving the country for international education. This has promulgated a change within society to permit women to attend all-female campuses. Additionally, Saudi Arabia now has numerous institutions of higher learning, competing with the West for producing highly qualified individuals to contribute to the national economy.
Furthermore, much of the Wahhabi doctrine woven into the curriculum has, according to many, incited, or spurred, many Islamic extremists to action (e.g. Osama bin Laden). The divisiveness endemic within the culture—the “us versus them” mentality—finds its roots within the hyper-religious schools. “By the early 1990s, one-quarter of all university students were studying in religious institutions” (Prokop, 2003, pp. 78). Moreover, “Three of the seven main universities focus on religious studies” (Prokop, 2003, pp. 79). Much of the weekly academic schedule comprises Islamic and Arabic studies to indoctrinate and initiate students into the Wahhabi-supremacy ideology. Despite the government’s efforts to compete with the West, as of 1995, 37.2% of the population remained illiterate. And of the illiterate population, 49.8% were women (Prokop, 2003, pp. 82).
After 9/11, Saudi Arabia, in an effort to curb its reputation as a haven and breeding ground for extremists, increased investment into education to confute the Western perception of Arab-manufactured, pseudo-egalitarian policies, opening more postsecondary institutions for women, thus creating real world opportunities in a ultra-conservative, repressive regime. Nevertheless,
“The ulama…resist changes regarding women’s participation in the employment market. More…Saudi women are highly educated and are pressing for more employment opportunities and a wider range of occupational choice. Women now represent more than 50 [%] of all university students” (Prokop, 2003, pp. 88).
The author continues,
“Confronted with public international criticism and American demands for religious education syllabuses and teaching practices to be changed, even more liberally minded Saudis have come out to defend ‘their’ education system, saying that education ‘is an issue of national sovereignty’ and Saudis ‘will not let any country interfere’” (Prokop, 2003, pp. 89).
In other words, with religio-politics fueled by avarice for power, women’s rights will remain stagnant. Though efforts by international and domestic activists have evinced positive change, the progressive agenda to recognize equality among the sexes will maintain a languid pace.
With the advent of social media and implementation of advanced communication technology, more people are aware of the atrocities committed against persons simply for their religion, gender, economic, or minority status. This has drawn significant attention to the Middle East and its inept attempts to sustain a working society with intrinsic equality. In recent years, however, with the world never more connected, oppressed individuals can vociferously challenge the status quo and petition against injustice with international consensus. Multiple parties have implored the Saudi Arabian government to change its segregative policies with scant success (Raphaeli, 2005, pp. 522, 526). Notwithstanding the minor progress, progress is indeed occurring.
Some of the opposition derives from intellectuals expressing their disdain for the nepotistic milieu created by government—the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (i.e. the religious police) (Prokop, 2003, pp. 78). The consistency of this dissent, however, is elusory. While many intellectuals propagate the political and economic equality of women, some remain wary of the implications of upgrading their social status. Writing of one intellectual and women’s rights advocate, al-Qasim, Lacroix notes, “In another interview, he warns against ‘the dangers of mixing genders in working places, since it can give a man the opportunity to be alone with a woman, which is prohibited Islam’” (Lacroix, 2004, pp. 248).
All-women workforces aren’t economically feasible. An integrative network of co-ed workers is necessary for high profit margins. The Ministry of Commerce, however, “announced in 1995 that women would no longer be issues commercial licenses for businesses requiring them to supervise foreign workers, interact with male clients, or deal regularly with government officials” (Doumato, 1999, pp. 569). This stunts monetary growth.
Though Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian kingdom with restrictive and discriminatory laws, the public-sector (that is, the government) is “the biggest single employer of women” (Doumato, 1999, pp. 569). With a profundity of job opportunities for persons graduating from national universities, finding work in the private sector, though mildly difficult, is feasible, thus the ubiquity of government held positions. In recent years (that is, at the time this was written), however, Saudi Arabia has been trying to outsource jobs from government responsibility to the private sector, thus alleviating the national economy’s contingency on a well-educated populace. There is, however, a dilemma between employing cheaper labor (e.g. foreigners, expatriates) and promulgating the “Saudiazation,” or pro-indigenousness, of the workforce (Doumato, 1999, pp. 571).
Politics and religion are married together in an inextricable bond, fused together by the power of the Saudi government and the official state endorsement of Wahhabi doctrine. This religio-political consummation cannot be divorced or surmounted, as civil disobedience is tantamount to sedition (Doumato, 1999, pp. 575). Therefore, though secularists and religionists alike concur shariah is the ultimate standard for societal living, employing women next to men for egalitarian and economic purposes is an uncrossable line. Nonetheless, numerous academics disagree with the notion that Saudi Arabia’s monopolization of power will augment domestic stability. This concentration of discrimination and overt violation of human rights in many fronts actually deters international customers and investors from the Hejaz (Doumato, 1999, pp. 580).
According to Al-Rasheed, women’s emancipation from authoritarian rule is a strategic ulterior motive for legitimacy within the international community. The West’s condemnation of oppressive regimes, excluding Saudi Arabia’s overt suppression of equality and strong economic ties with the United States, calls for further progressive action on behalf of minorities “even though they may outnumber men and exceed them in educational achievement” (Al-Rasheed, 2012, pp. 14). Therefore, though King Abdullah may enact various legislation and appoint women to the Consultative Council, this is, according to Al-Rasheed, a facile attempt to accrue customers investing in an invaluable anti-terrorism partner within the most volatile region in the world. Nevertheless, even with facile genuineness, change is change. If women are indeed emancipated de jure and removed from the stigmatized social pariah class despite their warranted contribution, visceral authenticity is merely a bonus to the tangible liberation.
Progress doesn’t entirely stem from external forces. After 9/11, as aforementioned, Saudi Arabia moved to counter the prevailing notion of pro-extremism sentiments. Their “endogenous” campaign to reform into a more “Islamo-liberal” society spurred many national intellectuals into action, calling for a more democratic system of government (Lacroix, 2004, pp. 346; Raphaeli, 2005, pp. 522). A new polity would revolutionize the region and ameliorate the contentious relationship between Arabs and the Western world.
However, the prospects of a Post-Islamist/Post-Wahhabi society undulate (Lacroix, 2004, pp. 364). Though some of the royal (al-Saud) family concurs with liberal reform, the community as a whole white-knuckles the principles of their forefathers, perpetuating the inequality endemic to the kingdom. Therefore, only time will tell. With the world becoming more complicated politically, militarily, technologically, and economically, Saudi Arabia just might have to conform to twenty-first century normalcy, thus abandoning some (not all) repressive dictums whilst adopting compatible policies to complement pre-existing tenets.
Summary and Conclusion
Overall, in Saudi Arabia, religion and politics cannot be divorced as they are inextricable bound by the consummation of the religio-political doctrine of eighteenth century Wahhabism, which advocates for societal return to the Medina, restoring Islam and sharia to the pre-medieval days of the Prophet, thus instituting a raw, unadulterated, rigid religion. The history of the Hijaz is rife with tribal wars and compulsory religion. Nevertheless, under the authority of the al-Saud family, the Arabian kingdom established a relatively stable Islamic society. The austerity of this construal of Islam reverberates even into the twenty-first century as people of minority status are fighting for equal representation. This authoritarian regime, seemingly sympathizing with its people yet adhering to ultra-conservative dogma, is gradually changing by necessity to compete with Western (and Eastern/Oriental) civilization. Now, with numerous institutions of higher learning, producing highly qualified individuals to contribute to the national economy, exporting and importing talent worldwide, Saudi Arabia has arrived into modernity—with caveats. By preserving endemic misogyny, which afflicts the female population, the international community remains slightly apprehensive in political affiliation. Therefore, to circumvent the appearance of acquiescing to Western demands, an endogenous campaign to end this inequality would prove conducive and apt by adopting these contemporary policies.
In reality, these efforts, however, aren’t politically expedient or opportune given the recent events of the Arab Spring. To abdicate power at the expense of Western demands or mere domestic quibbles would be political suicide. Therefore, unfortunately, it would behoove the Saudi Arabia to recognize women’s rights with contingencies, as it is already doing. The prospects, though dim, are gradually brightening. Given the reformist tendencies of some within the royal family, the possibility of a future without stringent laws enforced by overly authoritative religious police is slowly widening.