The Saudis Take On Radical Islam: The crown prince charts a course toward moderation, which prevailed before the 1979 attack on Mecca.

The Saudis Take On Radical IslamThe crown prince charts a course toward moderation, which prevailed : before the 1979 attack on Mecca. By Adel Al-Toraifi. This could be big.

The year 1979 was a watershed for the Middle East. Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the shah, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Sunni Islamic extremists tried to take over the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest shrine. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hadn’t been born, but he is fighting the ghosts of 1979 as he dramatically reforms the kingdom.

The attempted takeover of Mecca was a defining event in my country, mainly because of what happened next. Saudi rulers, fearing Iran’s revolutionary example, decided to give more space to the Salafi clerical establishment in hope of countering the radicals. Traditional Salafi preachers are neither violent nor political, but they hold a rigid view of Islam. Their legal rulings and attempts to police morals made the kingdom increasingly intolerant, setting back the gradual opening up that had occurred in the 1960s and ’70s. …

The combination of the brotherhood’s political outlook and the rigid Salafi doctrine injected a virus into the Saudi education system. That virus allowed Osama bin Laden to recruit 15 Saudis to take part in that terrible deed on Sept. 11, 2001. We Saudis failed those young men, and that failure had global implications.

The Salafi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood imports also worked in concert as they were given unsupervised access to private donations to fund mosques and madrasas from Karachi to Cairo, where they generally favored the most conservative preachers.

The policy makers’ idea was simple: Give the political Islamists and their Salafi affiliates room to influence educational, judicial and religious affairs, and we will continue to control foreign policy, the economy, and defense. Saudi rulers were handling the hardware, while radicals rewrote the nation’s software. Saudi society, and the Muslim world, is still reeling from the effects.

There has been a policy reversal, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:

Meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017

Crown Prince Mohammed … is clear about the problem. “Political Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite, Muslim Brotherhood or jihadi Salafist, has damaged Muslim nations,” he once told me. “It also gives Islam a bad name. Therefore, it is the role of Muslim countries to face these evil ideologies and groups and to stand with our world allies in the West and East to confront them once and for all.”

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed have already ushered in some head-spinning changes. The crown prince has led the effort to roll back the powerful religious police. These self-righteous moralizers no longer have the right to stop anyone on the street or take matters into their own hands. They have been effectively marginalized.

The king and crown prince have granted women their long-awaited rights to drive and attend sports. Women are no longer required to wear headscarves. I expect to see more women appointed to senior positions in government, even at the ministerial level. Once Saudi Arabia unleashes the potential of women, there is no telling how far we can go.

Glenn Reynolds:

I can attest that when the Saudi money hit northern Nigeria, the Islam there went from a rather mellow Sufi variety to, well, Boko Haram. Even if all that happens is the Saudis stop funding and promoting radical Islam worldwide, that will be huge.

Remember, after the Soviet Union folded, all sorts of “grassroots, authentic” terrorist movements dried up along with the Soviet funding. Something similar could happen here.

No wonder Trump is going pro-Saudi and anti-Iran.