Muezzins that issue high-speed calls to prayer have long been part of Saudi identity, but the crackdown on mosque speakers is part of controversial reforms aimed at shaking up the austere image of the Muslim kingdom.
Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Muslim sites, has long been associated with a rigid strain of Islam known as Wahhabism that inspired generations of global extremists and left the oil-rich kingdom steeped in conservatism.
But the role of religion faces the biggest reset in modern times as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spurred on by the need to diversify the oil-dependent economy, continues a liberalization campaign alongside a vigorous crackdown on the dissent.
Destroying a key pillar of its Islamic identity, the government last month ordered mosque loudspeakers to limit their volume to one-third of their maximum capacity and not play full sermons, citing concerns over noise pollution.
In a country home to tens of thousands of mosques, the move sparked an online backlash with the hashtag “We demand the return of mosque speakers” gaining traction.
It has also sparked calls to ban loud music in restaurants, once taboo in the kingdom but now common as part of liberalization efforts, and to fill mosques in such numbers that authorities are forced to allow tall ones. -speakers for those who gather outside.
# photo1 But authorities are unlikely to budge, as economic reforms for a post-oil era take precedence over religion, observers say.
“The country is reestablishing its bases,” Aziz Alghashian, professor of politics at the University of Essex, told AFP.
“It’s fast becoming an economic powerhouse that invests substantial effort in trying to appear more attractive – or less intimidating – to investors and tourists. “
– ‘Post-Wahhabi era’ –
In the most significant change that began even before Prince Mohammed’s rise, Saudi Arabia sterilized its once-feared religious police, which once drove people out of malls to go pray and berate anyone who mingles with the opposite sex.
In what was once unthinkable, some shops and restaurants now remain open during the five daily Muslim prayers.
As clerical power dwindles, preachers endorse government decisions they once vehemently opposed – including allowing women to drive, reopening cinemas, and educating Jews.
Saudi Arabia is revising textbooks to remove well-known references calling non-Muslims “pigs” and “apes”.
The practice of non-Muslim religions remains banned in the kingdom, but government adviser Ali Shihabi recently told US media Insider that allowing a church was on “leaders’ to-do list.”
# photo2 Authorities have publicly ruled out lifting an absolute alcohol ban, which is prohibited in Islam. But several sources, including a Gulf-based diplomat, quoted Saudi officials as saying in closed-door meetings that “it will happen gradually.”
“It is no exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia has entered a post-Wahhabi era, although the exact religious contours of the state are still evolving,” Kristin Diwan of the State’s Kristin Diwan told AFP. ‘Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Religion no longer has the right to veto the economy, social life and foreign policy. “
– ‘Rivals eliminated’ –
In another turn, observers say Saudi Arabia appears to be turning its back on global issues affecting other Muslims, which could weaken its image as a leader of the Islamic world.
“In the past, its foreign policy was driven by the Islamic doctrine that Muslims are as one body – when one member suffers, the whole body responds,” another Gulf-based diplomat told AFP. .
“Now it’s based on mutual non-interference: ‘We (the Saudis) won’t talk about Kashmir or Uyghurs, you’re not talking about Khashoggi.’ ”
Prince Mohammed, popularly known as MBS, has sought to position himself as a champion of “moderate” Islam, even as his international reputation was affected by the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
He has pledged to crack down on radical clerics, but observers say many of the victims have been supporters of moderate Islam, critics and supporters of his rivals.
One of these clerics is Suleiman al-Dweish, linked to former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, MBS’s main rival.
Dweish has not been seen since his detention in the holy city of Mecca in 2016 after tweeting a parable about a child being spoiled by his father, according to London-based human rights groups ALQST and a source close to his family.
This was seen as a veiled insult to MBS and his father, King Salman.
Another is Salman al-Awdah, a moderate cleric detained in 2017 after calling for reconciliation with rival Qatar in a tweet. He remains in detention even after Saudi Arabia ended its rift with Qatar earlier this year.
“Politically, MBS has eliminated all of his rivals, including those who shared many of the same religious reform goals,” Diwan said.
© 2021 AFP