In al-Ha’ir, Saudi Arabia, 25 miles south of Riyadh, a maximum-security prison houses 2,680 inmates, as well as a library of books that have been banned from Saudi public schools. It’s an irony that reflects the sharp contrast between Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, which runs the prison, and some of the country’s most powerful religious institutions, which for generations have held sway on education and culture throughout the kingdom. The yawning gap between the two suggests that this oil-rich center of the Arab and Islamic worlds may be moving toward new ideas about its future.
Gone from the library are titles by Sayyid Qutb and other giants of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organization by Saudi monarch Abdullah bin Abdelaziz in March. In their stead one finds, for example, books by Al-Jahiz, a 9th-century intellectual of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad who channeled Aristotelian philosophy into animal fables and parsed the pleasures of life, and Abu ’l-Faraj al-Isfahani, the empire’s great compiler of Arabic poetry. One also finds modern studies of philosophy and psychology and an Arabic translation of Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success. In its own way, each of these volumes poses a challenge to the stringent interpretation of Islam, favored by Saudi clerics, that helped breed al-Qaeda: Readers gain a broader understanding of their religion and culture and a more charitable view of non-Muslims.
The collection is part of a studied approach to counterterrorism that fuses hard-nosed security measures with a campaign to alter the jihadist mindset. Corrections officers try to signal the state’s goodwill by granting conjugal visits to inmates and their wives and providing decent medical care and recreational facilities. A subset of the prisoners go on to spend three months at the Muhammad bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Advice, a jihadist halfway house that has hosted all Saudi returnees from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Clinical Psychologist Abdullah al-Garni, one of the architects of the program, says he has drawn from the Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles, an inmate rehabilitation methodology taught at Texas Christian University, and broader psychotherapy techniques to address the pathological aspect of terrorism. A Muslim cleric, for his part, uses the Center’s pulpit to argue against the ideology jihadists have embraced. (He makes his case largely on the Sunni Islamic legal principle that only the Wali al-Amr, or head of state, has the right to declare war.) The Center claims a recidivism rate of 12 percent.
Saudi Arabia faces a much harder task, however, in reforming educational and religious institutions outside the prison walls to preempt militant thinking among the population. Even in an absolute monarchy, education systems are inherently messier than interior ministries, where strict command and control prevails. But the heart of the problem is that an entrenched religious establishment, long a pillar of state ideology, remains dominated by clerics who do not think there is anything wrong with the interpretation of Islam they have been preaching for generations. “Look at Europe in the Dark Ages when the Pope and the Church controlled everything,” says Garni, who also directs the psycho-oncology department at the Saudi National Guard, “and you can understand what’s going on here now.”
Garni’s views, though seldom conveyed publicly in Saudi Arabia, tend to reflect an outlook shared by other movers I met—from the prison librarian and the staff of the Muhammad bin Nayef Center to the leadership of the training academy at the Mabahith al-Ammah (“General Investigations Directorate”), Saudi Arabia’s equivalent of the FBI. They repeatedly voiced the grievance that their counterparts in other ministries are not shouldering their share of the responsibility to combat extremism. As in other Arab states where I’ve spent time with police, there is a counterintuitive situation: The security apparatus has become one of the more culturally progressive institutions in the country.
But now the Saudi-led, pan-regional push against the Muslim Brotherhood has created a new opportunity to move other sectors in a similar direction. The king’s recent designation of the Brotherhood as a terror group arms the state with a new mandate, grounded in legitimate security concerns, to overhaul educational and cultural institutions—from textbooks to the people who teach them. In this context, the interior ministry has also begun to make forays into the public discourse by organizing its own Islamic educational camps for children.
Proponents of change don’t need to begin from scratch in articulating moderate religious views. To the Brotherhood’s chagrin, there has always been a paper trail of fatwas by senior Saudi Salafi clerics leaning against lethality. For example, in the early months following the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, then-Grand Mufti Abdullah Bin Baaz ruled it permissible to reach a provisional “peace treaty with the Jews,” to include “buying and selling and exchanging ambassadors,” provided the arrangement “serves Muslim interests.” Amid deadly riots in Libya following the release of an offensive film about the prophet Muhammad on YouTube, the present Mufti, Abd al-Aziz Al Sheikh, deemed it un-Islamic for anyone to claim the mantle of “defending Islam”—because, in his view, Islam requires no defense. These and other helpful rulings by some of the country’s religious heavyweights—on women, minorities, and controversial aspects of modernity—have been few and far between, and they have tended to discomfit most clerics. But they do provide a basis to amplify moderate voices, given staunch support from the King.
American efforts to prod Saudi Arabia toward reform largely dismiss prospects for change from within. But deep inside the system, a meaningful effort is underway that deserves to be encouraged.