Peacemaker, troublemaker, authoritarian or philosopher king? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been under fire by those intimidated by his rise to power from within and outside Saudi Arabia. However, there is no doubt that he has been the driving force to achieve peace in the Middle East in addition to launching the social reforms that are transforming Saudi Arabia from a nation that had once been an enigmatic nation under the veil of mystery by showcasing the beauty of its land and ancient heritage.
In a recent podcast, two men of conservative Islamic faith discussed Mohammed bin Salman, who has also been largely responsible for the liberalisation of Saudi Arabia, especially in relation to the promotion of women’s rights and the removal of strict religious laws.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a series of concerts and raves in Riyadh, where both men and women were allowed to attend, which drew criticism from conservative Muslims. Before his rule, women were not allowed to attend public performances where men would be present. Photo by Collected.
These two men, Muhammed Jalal and Sami Hamdi, in a conversation on the podcast, The Thinking Muslim, are both UK citizens and were educated in the United Kingdom, but also have a curiously religiously doctrinal and establishmentarian view of the world. They both speak about the “horror” and the “spectacle” of raves and concerts in Riyadh in which both men and women had been allowed to attend, and Mr. Sami Hamdi recalls an anecdote when Mohammed bin Salman had been meeting with US leaders, that he had said he needed “25-30 years in order to root out Islamic extremists” from his nation, according to a second-hand account from the point of view of a Saudi General who had been present and who had supposedly witnessed the conversation.
Both men are shocked by this revelation and their indignant nature is ever so present. Mr. Sami Hamdi continues with his analysis of Mohammed bin Salman, in that he only became a “great statesman” after making tremendous missteps in foreign policy and his policies were to promote economic growth, and as a consequence, the “de-Islamisation” of Saudi Arabia by making religion a private practice and not a public one. Mr. Hamdi carries on to assess the rationale for Mohammed bin Salman’s particular strategy, and he cites how the separation of Church and State was what led to the United States becoming a global power and that Mohammed bin Salman was actively following that example.
Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline is one of the most picturesque and beautiful landscapes in the nation which is being geared to become a new centre of art, film and culture. Photo by Red Sea Global
Mr. Sami Hamdi continues and speaks with visible outrage on how Mohammed bin Salman wants the Red Sea coastline to have a film festival atmosphere similar to Cannes, where women wear beautiful dresses and have their uncovered flowing hair visible walking down the red carpet because Mr. Hamdi says, Mohammed bin Salman was part of the generation that had been influenced by MBC, a television channel in Dubai that aired Hollywood TV programmes and movies that had influenced a significant portion of the young Saudi population.
Now from these statements alone, one may think that Mr. Sami Hamdi is from an old-fashioned era, or perhaps a throwback age of religious conservatism indicative of someone in his senior years, but in fact, he is not. According to Companies House UK, Mr. Sami Hamdi is a Millennial, of the same generation as Mohammed bin Salman, and was born in July 1990, making him 33 years old by the end of this summer.
One might also speculate about why a millennial British citizen, who had immigrated to the UK with his parents and was educated at the University of London, might hold such religiously conservative views? After all, despite his seemingly orthodox Islamic faith, Mr. Sami Hamdi wears smart and stylish contemporary menswear and is the managing director of International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company that advises governments, according to his linkedin.
In addition, Mr. Sami Hamdi was probably never forced to cover his face and hair with a niqab or wear black burkas in the middle of summer, nor forced to cover his body in rising temperatures of the Middle East. However, in this interview, he reveals with delight when Turkey had to U-turn on their ban of hijabs and that “it was the will of Allah for women to cover their hair to show their Islamic faith.” Mr. Sami Hamdi doesn’t wear the traditional Islamic clothing for men either, so how could he hold these religiously conservative views?
An obviously intelligent and articulate man, one has to understand the particular psychology of Mr. Sami Hamdi, and also men of Islamic faith who have been vocal against the social reforms that are currently being undertaken by Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabian women are no longer required to wear hijabs and abayas and left to their own discretion on how to dress. Many of the religious rules that prevented women from self-expression in clothing choices have been eradicated by the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo by Under The Abaya/ Abrar Hassan
Let’s consider that thus far it seems, social reforms have mainly benefitted Muslim women of Saudi Arabia. Women can now drive on their own, go out on their own, attend sporting events, concerts and raves with the opposite gender, be in the same room as men, and be allowed to file for various visas to travel abroad without the authority of a male guardian.
Despite these social reforms benefitting women, Muslim men, such as Mr. Sami Hamdi, most likely do not see an obvious benefit for them. In fact, they perceive Mohammed bin Salman’s “de-Islamisation” of government and the public space as a kind of taking away of their power, crippling their masculinity and identity as a man.
For Mr. Sami Hamdi, one can speculate that as a immigrant who moved to the UK as a teen or young man, that he might’ve perceived himself as an outsider to British society, despite that the UK attracts people from around the world, Mr. Sami Hamdi might’ve felt ostracised by the British upper class who mainly tend to be Protestant Christians. Hence, his identification with Islam, is not with the religion itself, but as an ethnic identity.
In another podcast by the Thinking Muslim, Imam Ashaf Babous, who leads a Muslim congregation in the inner borough of Lewisham, interviewed by Muhammed Jalal, explains how young Britons are converting to Islam who are primarily from “racist” neighbourhoods. This again reiterates the symbolic nature of Islam as a kind of ethnic identity and refuge from middle and working class Protestants who are the largest demographic in the UK.
In the iconic 1847 British novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, young Catherine is in love with Heathcliff, who is described as “a dark Moorish” boy, the representation of a young Muslim in Victorian England. However, ultimately, Catherine doesn’t feel that society would accept their interracial romance, and instead opts to marry Edgar Linton, a wealthy British man of the Protestant upper class, despite the fact that she isn’t in love with him. Although a work of literature, this story symbolically highlights the feeling of disenchantment many Muslims feel as being on the outskirts of British society and not being fully accepted, despite that they may have been born and educated there, and may identify with Islam as their ethnic identity. Laurence Olivier plays Healthcliff in the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights along with his costar, Merle Oberon who plays Catherine Earnshaw. Photo still from movie.
Similar to how many Jewish people often identify their faith as their ethnicity, men of conservative Islamic faith may also consider their faith as their ethnic identity. Hence, they might perceive Mohammed bin Salman’s “de-Islamisation” of Saudi Arabia as not something that promotes Saudi men into the world, but something that only reveals the face of the Saudi woman to the world, but concomitantly takes away the rights of Saudi men in these ownership and guardian roles that they had been accustomed to for decades, as a kind of attack on their masculinity.
Imam Ashaf Babous, the Muslim congregation leader in Lewisham, also mentions how young men are finding themselves more disenfranchised in a Westernised, “feminist” world and that they may turn to Islam due to its structure as a “macho” religion in which the roles of man and a woman are clearly defined.
Again, there is a sense that many Muslim men identify Islam not only with their ethnicity, but also their sense of masculinity. However, in a rather interesting conversation with Omar Suleiman at the Oxford Union, he makes the observation that Islam is open to interpretation in every culture, and that the practices of Muslim people in Malaysia vs. Muslim people in Afghanistan are wildly variant and that the entire religion of Islam can’t be held accountable for how one culture or nation defines and practises Islam.
Nouman Ali Khan, founder of the Bayyinah Institute for Arabic and Qur'anic studies, who is also considered one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world according to Royal Islamic Strategic Centre of Jordan, in a recent podcast, compares Islam to the English language, and that different dialects and regional accents make Islam as diverse as the spoken language of English. However, he says that ultimately Islam has to be adapatible to contemporary times in order to remove and nullify cultural injustices, as hypertribalism or hyper-individualism can often be at odds with each other and that is up to Islam to find a common ground between both.
Therefore, it makes sense that moving forward, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a daunting task in front of him, not only to sway the opposition group or possibly “extremist” group of Islamists into his way of thinking, but that he also holds the immense responsibility of re-interpreting Islam into the process of modernisation of Saudi Arabia by removing those injustices that may be ingrained in hypertribalism, yet also respecting the ancient history of his nation. This is a defining moment for the young prince who must choose which path to take: the one of the authoritarian ruler or the one of the philosopher king.
In the Republic, Plato depicts the role of the philosopher king as the following: "Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings are leading men genuinely and adequately to philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entire coincide...cities will have no rest from evils, and there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other city." According to Plato, philosopher kings combined insight from history, had a noble, just and benevolent temperament whose knowledge of philosophy would allow him to become the most effective ruler of his times. In Ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, one of the foremost thinkers of his time who had written Meditations, was considered a philosopher king. Bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Villa Albani Torlonia in Italy. Photo by Fonazione Torlonia.
In regards to Mr. Sami Hamdi, he does make a valid point in that anyone, including Sheikhs who have opposed these social reforms that have been made, or made any posts on social media criticising these social reforms, have been immediately arrested and sent to prison or forced to move abroad in order to avoid imprisonment. Mr. Sami Hamdi notes that Mohammed bin Salman halted religious education at schools and instead replaced it with a curriculum of “critical thinking” but that censorship and intolerance of opposing viewpoints do not promote the ultimate goal of creating a new wave of critical thinkers in Saudi Arabia.
One can say this is an insightful comment that shouldn’t be ignored. We have to consider that the process of modernisation of Saudi Arabia is as important as the end goal, but that good intentions often pave the road to hell. In order to shed the aura of intolerance of opposing viewpoints and the rise of authoritarian power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could instead take on the role of the “philosopher king”, rather than follow in the steps of past authoritarian leaders in history who have paved the way for forced oppression which has only inevitably led to revolution. If Islam's higher goal is indeed what Nourman Ali Khan has said, to nullify and remove injustices inherent in a culture, then Mohammed bin Salman must also follow this philosophy and create an open environment where opposing viewpoints are handled in respectful ways through dialogue and intelligent conversation.
By building a forum of critical thinkers and promoting intellectual diversity and tolerance within the population, this would be the most effective strategy in preventing future rebellion and anarchy in which a group of extremists could soon become a transformative movement against political tyranny. An Oxford Union style debate society in which any difficult or controversial subject could be dissected at Saudi schools and Universities would lay the foundation for its further modernisation.
But the question remains, how to convince conservative Islamists with possible extremist leanings into the Muslim Brotherhood, be swayed towards the social reforms of Saudi Arabia?
In ancient times, Confucius wrote the Analects, and depicted the ideals of the Superior Man that would serve to become the blueprint for the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty in China lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD and promoted art, design, technology and had eventually launched the Silk Road trading route to Europe which would ultimately change the nation's future trajectory. Han Dynasty art and inventions still influence the modern world today. The Analects served as a guide of behaviour for the population, in turn re-writing the role of man and the leaders of the nation to act noble in character and respectful of all during a time of great changes, chaos and economic uncertainty. In a similar way, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could re-write the role of the Arabic man, one that depicts the dignity, the noble character and the respectful nature of Islam through a contemporary lens. Photo of the terracotta army of the Han Dynasty from china.lu
If we consider that for decades, the status of Muslim men was often depicted in negative and derogatory ways, with a lack of freedom in style of dress and expression, and often equated to terrorists and violent abusers of women, Mohammed bin Salman now has the task of altering this perception of Muslim men, by coming into the public spotlight in order to highlight the universal qualities that all men strive to have, to be the heroic, educated and gentlemanly Arabic ideal of Islam in an era where many global populations often succumb to the beliefs of toxic masculinity and lack of diplomacy and social propriety. By re-writing, editing and re-envisioning the ideal Muslim man both in the public space and also in the Qur'an, not dissimilar to Confucius’ ideal of the Superior man in The Analects, when the latter had inspired the leadership and population of the Han Dynasty in China, it could be a driving force to empower men like Mr. Sami Hamdi who identifies Islam with his ethnic identity and masculinity to embrace the social reforms which will inevitably also highlight the many benefits it will have for men.
From superheroes to everyday heroes, the archetype of the hero has always been part of the American Dream. Films, TV programmes and popular books have empowered American men to identify with their favourite superheroes and in turn, act like heroes. From rescuing children from burning buildings to saving damsels-in-distress from impending danger and doom, the US has utilised the motif of the hero as distinctly American. In a likewise fashion, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could utilise the ideal of the Arabic gentleman as a new envisioning of the role of men in Islam. Photo of Captain America by Wired Magazine.
In the final analysis, it is easy to defeat someone but harder to win them over to one’s side. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will have to ultimately change the perception of current Muslim men towards that of the knight, the hero and the contemporary Arabic gentleman and re-write the role of Muslim men in both public life and religious text in order to win over the opposition to finally embrace his social reforms. By promoting his version of Islam, through the auspices of the media, and re-envisioning the ideal Muslim man whilst highlighting all the societal and social standing that would benefit men could be the most effective way to get critics in his nation and those abroad to adopt his vision.