Saudi Arabia's grand mufti has defended the religious establishment's legitimacy in a public forum, while responding to mounting criticism of the religious leadership's close political alliance with the ruling House of Saud. The public nature of the criticism suggests a significant increase in public concerns about the legitimacy of the country's political and religious leadership.
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Al-Sheikh, has defended the country's religious leadership during a public meeting at a prominent mosque in Riyadh, Saudi daily al Riyadh reported June 15. During a question-and-answer session with members of the public and the media, Al Al-Sheikh denied that the government influenced fatwas (religious rulings) and said accusations to the contrary within the media were false. Both the criticism and the public response to it indicate a deepening level of dissent, not only within the kingdom's religious establishment, but also among the public. It is significant that the question was asked and answered in a public forum, and then reprinted in the media — including the Arabic and English language newspapers. Similar questions of legitimacy will arise in coming months, with the kingdom's religious, political and perhaps military leaderships becoming the focal points for increasingly intense criticism. That Al Al-Sheikh answered the question about government influence over fatwas so openly is a clear indicator that the public has growing concerns about the legitimacy of religious leaders. Also, that the statements were reprinted in the press signals that the Saudi government — which wields enormous influence over the local press — is moving to respond to the charges of undue influence and corruption and illegitimacy. The House of Saud is closely aligned with the country's top religious family, Al-Sheikh, whose ancestor Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab al-Najdi founded the kingdom's strict brand of Islam. Some opponents of the regime have claimed the government is corrupt and that it heavily influences religious doctrine inside the kingdom. The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, which influences almost every aspect of social life, is deeply involved in politics. It has long been fractured into at least two distinct groups, with the senior ulema closely tied to the political agenda of the House of Saud. A younger generation of ulema, who are less firmly established and more radical in tone, have openly criticized the senior ulema and the government in the past. Fractures between the government and this younger generation deepened in May 2003, when Riyadh fired or suspended thousands of them. Many were to be "re-educated," while others were simply ousted from the religious establishment. The move did little to endear the government to an already frustrated and religiously radical cadre of clerics. Al Qaeda and its allies — as well as a range of other opponents of the regime — are exploiting the growing dissent within the clerical establishment and the public to challenge the legitimacy of the religious-political system as a whole. Threats to several key pillars supporting the House of Saud — including its strategic alliance with the United States, its tribal network and the kingdom's security establishment — are mounting. Verbal attacks against the regime's religious credentials are part of this broader offensive. These assaults will escalate in coming months, and they could lead to heightened conflict between the regime and mid-level — or perhaps even some senior — clerics.