Saudi Islam has a plural character. All its parts contend the monopoly of the divine

This article was published in Oasis 15. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:47

Book review of Stéphane Lacroix, Les islamistes saoudiens. Une insurrection manquée, Puf, Paris, 2010


Les islamistes saudiens. Une insurrection manquée is the result of research in the field engaged in between June 2003 and May 2007, principally in Saudi Arabia but also in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Great Britain, during which Stéphane Lacroix met certain major figures of Saudi political Islamism, a subject that has not been explored very much and when it has been explored almost always starting from secondary sources. The author stresses above all the plural character of Saudi Islam which is too often seen as a monolithic bloc, and within which many movement of an Islamic character have arisen which are generally not very known about in the West. Saudi Arabia, the author argues, is not simply a country that exports Islam, it is, rather, a receptacle of outside influences.

This allows us a better understanding of the way in which the culture of local Islamic activism has developed which, linked to the teachings of ‘Abd al-Wahhab, has created autochthonous, complex and diversified Islamist movements, the most famous of which is the so-termed Sahwa islâmiyya, the Islamic awakening. Together with this, Lacroix also mentions other groups, such as that of the Ahl al-Hadîth which, formed by the followers of sheykh al-Albânî, hopes for a regenerated Wahhabism purified of the influence of the Muslim Brothers, and Jihadism (financed by Bin Laden), a form of Islamism defined in the volume as being ‘internationalist’, which emerged in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The first chapter is dedicated to an analysis of the Sahwa, a movement which was established in the 1960s and 1970s, ‘a mix of Wahhabism and ideas inherited from the Muslim Brothers’ (42). This, in brief, was a hybrid generated by the union of two distinct matrixes: Wahhabism of an essentially religious character, created to oppose innovations contrary to Islam (bid‘a), and the Muslim Brotherhood, a phenomenon that was first of all political and which developed a sense of opposition to the imperialist West, in the version of Hasan al-Banna, and to the impious nationalist regimes, in that of Sayyid Qutb. The importance of this Islamist movement is connected to the developments it has experienced over time: from being a movement well integrated into the official institutions of the state, and to such an extent as to be attributed the management of education, to being a protagonist of a failed insurrection against the royal family.

A good part of this book is dedicated specifically to the logic and the dynamics of this opposition which began in the 1980s and continued until 1994, and which was provoked by the economic recession that followed the oil shock but above all by the American military presence in the state of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, a presence wanted by the royal family out of a fear that Saddam Hussein, after Kuwait, could also invade Saudi Arabia. The author analyses the failure of the Sahwi insurrection in a long chapter, ‘Anatomie d’un échec’, in which he illustrates the methods that the royal family adopted to reduce the dissidents to silence. Amongst these were the coercion produced by the ‘political paternalism’ of the Saudi State ‘which treats its citizens as children who have been naughty’ (238), arrests and public executions, as well as a policy of institutional regulation which sought to reduce the flow of the material and symbolic resources to the movement in an attempt to weaken it. This work has the merit of illustrating the particularities that characterise the culture of Saudi Islamic activism, distinguishing it from the political Islam of the rest of the Arab world. In the Saudi case, as the author makes clear, ‘this is not a matter of combating a secular regime which has a register that is different from religion; one is dealing, rather, with contending monopoly of the divine with a power based upon religion’ (4).