Reflections on Three Decades of Religious Dominance: The 1990s

 This is the second part of a three-part series; find the first one here.

The 1980s allowed religious figures of the sahwa movement to established a strong hold on the country. However, it was the regional and domestic unrest in the 1990s that brought in a new set of challenges that would have an effect on their unity, strength and discourse.

The first of these challenges was the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The fear of war and possible chemical attacks shocked the Saudi population that never experienced any regional conflict before (see fig. 1). As a way to seek comfort, the conservative population turned to religion which was then influenced by the teachings of the sahwa movement.

Figure 1. Saudi citizens and soldiers during prayers on Friday, Jan. 18, 1991. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) via The Atlantic

The subsequent presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil was a turning point for the unity of religious scholars at that time. The sahwa religious figures of the 1980s saw the presence of U.S. troops as an indirect attempt at Westernizing the country. Therefore, they were publicly vocal in their opposition and even directly so to the government itself.

As opposed to the religious figures of the sahwa movement, the official religious establishment issued a fatwa permitting the presence of U.S. troops. These two different views caused the first break between the two religious groups that functioned peacefully together in the 1980s. Subsequently, Saudis had to deal with inconsistent religious interpretations for the first time. The divided religious discourse would slowly weaken the credibility of religious scholars who began providing conflicting interpretations, an issue that will become even more problematic over time.

A few months after the invasion of Kuwait, a number of Saudi women drove their cars in Riyadh in an attempt to lift the driving ban imposed on women. Many figures of the sahwa movement responded aggressively to the demonstration, claiming that it was further evidence of Westernization attempts targeting the Saudi society and culture. It is no wonder, then, that the action of these women was not received favorably by the conservative population that was still caught up in the war with Iraq. Therefore, the prosecution of 47 women who took part in the driving demonstration can be seen as a effort to silence the ever growing hostility of religious scholars.

Sahwa religious scholars continued spreading their ideas and beliefs in various way. Just like the booklet trend in the 1980s, the religious cassettes was the most prominent feature of the 1990s (see fig. 2). Similarly to the booklet phenomena, cassettes were also distributed in various locations such as hospitals, mosques and social gatherings. The subject matter of these cassettes was similar to that of the booklets in the 1980s, however, it was more politically motivated. Topics on Westernization, the plight of Muslims worldwide, the Balkan War and Al-Aqsa Mosque started filling the shelves of cassette shops across the capital.

Cassettes were played in public places, such as shops, schools and even in conservative weddings. one theme that was repeatedly stressed in these cassettes was the importance of taking an active role in promoting Islamic values in the society. It was not optional to approach people and tell them what to do, it was mandatory. Therefore, individuals took an active role in promoting the ideas of the sahwa movement since preaching became a role anyone can play.

As someone who grew up during that era, I accepted the conservative dress code but did not believe in covering my face. In a number of occasions, I remember being told by women, young and old, that I must cover my face. Sometimes passerby would express their dismay and ask me to cover. The role of the preacher shows how the Saudi population changed from being passive recipients in the 1980s to active agents in the 1990s.


Figure 2. Woman looking at a collection of “religious cassettes”.

Schools became another frontier where sahwa ideas were being spread. Teachers in charge of religion subjects were deep sympathizers with figures of the sahwa movement. Since many sahwa figures were vocal in their support for fighting in the Balkan War, it was no wonder to see such sympathy and support expressed for the fighters there. Books on the Balkan War and massacres committed against Muslims were narrated, sometimes in an very emotional manner, by teachers to create catharsis in the classroom.

The 1990s witnessed the spread of donation boxes and kiosks throughout the country. Leaving a grocery store, one used to see endless donations kiosks for any cause, be it orphanage support in Afhganistan, helping the Palestinian cause, building mosques and securing food in Africa and supporting the Balkans in their ongoing war. Some charity organization even provided drivers to collect money from those who wished to donate.

Summer camps for boys and young men became a growing business in the 1990s. In these camps, religious figures would use the absence of any higher authority to promote their ideology. One of the most recurring activities was destroying musical instruments which were considered against Islam (as the next video would show). Other ideas and beliefs were also spread in these camps that became a breeding ground for extremist views.

On the other hand, the 1990s witnessed the introduction of satellite dishes, mobile phones and the internet. Satellite dishes were strongly opposed by both official and unofficial religious figures who publicly denounced them (see fig. 3). People who decided to install satellite dishes often preferred hiding them so they would not be bothered by the disapproving public. Mobile phones became an issue when certain manufacturers began producing phones with cameras. Many saw this as a threat and worried that images of their female relatives will be taken in social gatherings and circulated to others. Lastly, the internet allowed men and women to talk in chat rooms and for the population to open up to the outside world. All of these threats caused tremendous worries among the religious scholars of the sahwa movement.

Figure 3. A fatwa by a prominent religious figure, Ibn Uthaymeen, stating that those who install satellite dishes will not be allowed in heaven.

The deeply conservative population could not resist the temptation of installing satellite dishes, owning mobile phones and using the internet. A small faction of the society at that time was not religious or did not see such inventions un-Islamic. However, the majority of the population shared the views of religious scholars, yet, continued using them, sometimes even in secret. Some would not openly admit that they installed a satellite dish or that they have access to the internet. This new behavior allowed Saudis to live double lives; one for themselves and one for the society. Subsequently, the conflicting attitude and behavior gave birth to the term “Saudi exclusiveness” which is used to justify the contradictory lifestyle of the population. It explained why Saudi men did not mind if their female relatives did not wear the Islamic dress code abroad, but expected them to do so back home. It also explained why frequenting entertainment venues abroad was seen as normal but the idea of opening such venues at home was seen as immoral.

The growing hostility of the sahwa movement resulted in the imprisonment of some of its most prominent members. That did not silence them completely as they continued to spread their ideas and beliefs in the absence of any strong measures to stop them. Saudis were divided between official and unofficial religious scholars and their conflicting interpretations of Islam. While the official had more authority and more power, they were slowly seen as uncredible due to their changing views. The release of some religious figures of the sahwa movement in late 1990s allowed them to gather their strength. However, they also changed their views but used the internet and television programs, which they banned before, to reach an even bigger audience.

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