Last week, Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Scholars issued a defamatory statement against the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that the movement is one of the worst organisations and a threat to Islamic orthodoxy. The Brotherhood, claimed the Saudi scholars, "…is a terrorist group that does not represent the approach of Islam… It is a perverted organisation that disobeys legitimate rulers, stirs up discord, conceals foul doings under the cover of religion and practices violence and terrorism. The brotherhood did not show keenness to follow the teachings of Islam or the Sunnah and hadith, but aimed rather to reach power."
At the same time, the statement accused what is quite possibly the most moderate Muslim organisation in the world of being the incubator for many "terrorist" organisations. Even after Muslim scholars around the world expressed their shock at the statement, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, insisted that what was mentioned in the statement is accurate, and claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood "is a stray group".
Unsurprisingly, the movement denied these outrageous allegations. "The Brotherhood… is far from acts of violence and terrorism, and the dissemination of division within the [Muslim Ummah]," said spokesman Talaat Fahmy. "It is a reformist advocacy group that calls for obedience to Allah through sharing wise and pious advice without excess or negligence."
In response to the statement of the Saudi Arabian scholars and Al-Sheikh's remarks, activists circulated a fatwa (religious opinion) of the late scholar Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz (1910-1999), who was the respected Chairman of the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Iftaa in Saudi Arabia: "The most righteous Islamic groups and the closest to the teachings of the Prophet are Ahl Al-Sunnah, including Ahl Al-Hadith, Jamaat Ansar Al-Sunna and then comes the Muslim Brotherhood."
Bin Baz's opinion represented the view of the official religious bodies in Saudi Arabia and thus the official view of the Kingdom itself about the Muslim Brotherhood. So too, does the statement of the Council of Senior Scholars, so why is it so negative today when it was extremely positive in the past?
In 1936, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, agreed with Imam Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, that the organisation should take responsibility for reforming the religious principles of the new Kingdom and lay down the curricula for schools and universities. At that time, the tribal religious principles proved to be insufficient for the foundations of a modern nation state.
King Abdulaziz also needed the Muslim Brotherhood's scholars to gentrify the tribal mentality of the Saudi citizens in order to be able to deal with the modern life of the Kingdom after the discovery of oil. The King mobilised his followers against the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century using the religious legacy of the companions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and wanted to show his people that he was still committed to such principles while parts of the Arab world were plagued with different ideologies which blamed Islam for the difficulties in the region.
Taking up such an important responsibility in the new Kingdom was not free of obligations. King Abdulaziz set his conditions which led, during the reign of one of his many sons, for example, to the Muslim Brotherhood being asked to provide its expertise to help in the recruitment, fundraising and organisation of the Mujahideen who were encouraged by the United States and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. According to Amin Mohammad Habla, the movement responded to this request "enthusiastically" on the basis of honouring their principle of Islamic "brotherhood".
According to Habla, this made the Brotherhood very well respected in the Kingdom, which received its leaders and members warmly, many of whom had been released from Egyptian prisons during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat.
In a paper for the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy, Mohamed Qandil wrote: "Saud Bin Abdulaziz followed the same path as his father, while the Brotherhood's second Supreme Guide Mohammed Al-Hudaybi followed in Al-Banna's footsteps, and the close relations between the two institutions continued. Those relations were clearly manifested in Faisal Bin Abdulaziz's position in the organisation, as the king and his 'Islamic unity' project were in direct confrontation with 'Pan-Arab nationalism' and Nasserist ideology."
The honeymoon did not last. After the assassination of King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood was shaken as rulers of the Kingdom saw that the outcomes of the school and university curricula did not keep up with their ambitions. They wanted absolute obedience to the ruler, but the Brotherhood brought up generations on the principles of freedom of religious beliefs and expression, including being able to express opposition to those in government.
Researchers and observers more or less agree that the opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Kingdom's request for American help to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in 1990, and the letter to King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz on this issue by the prominent late Saudi Scholar Sheikh Safar Al-Hawali, were the main reasons for the start of the demonisation of the movement. By then the Brotherhood had become the umbrella group for most of the moderate Muslim scholars around the world.
At the beginning of the 21st century, these doubts were translated into action. Under a lot of pressure, Saudi Arabia was obliged to change its policy with the Muslim Brotherhood after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. The pressure came from other Arab leaders who already suppressed the group, as they claimed that the Brotherhood was responsible for the existence of Al-Qaeda, which was accused of carrying out the terrorist attacks.
The Saudi government cracked down on the Brotherhood's funding sources and closed its charitable organisations. The then Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz, had the responsibility of fighting Al-Qaeda in the Kingdom as part of the US "war on terror", and claimed in an interview with Kuwait's Al-Siyasa newspaper that the Muslim Brotherhood "is the source of the crisis."
Saudi Arabia continued to distance itself from the movement when the Brotherhood came to global prominence after the rise of the Islamists in Turkey and Palestine, who won majorities in free and fair elections.
"After the spread of the 2011 Arab revolutions, the kingdom [under King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz] began to adopt a new approach towards the Brotherhood," wrote Qandil, adding: "During this period, some demands for reform were adopted by Brotherhood affiliates, which pushed the Saudi regime to turn against them. This was especially the case regarding neighbouring Egypt, where the kingdom applauded the removal of the Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and supported the current regime's firm stance against them." Following the 2013 coup against Morsi, Egypt blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Saudi Arabia took the same baseless decision.
After the death of King Abdullah in 2015, his aging brother Salman took the throne. He continued the same hostile approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood even though the late Saud Al-Faisal, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, said soon after Salman's accession: "We do not have any problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Our problem is only with a small group affiliated with this organisation. They are the ones who bow their heads in homage to the Supreme Guide."
That was the core of the issue. The Saudis used the Muslim Brotherhood to exploit religion when it suited them, and then wanted the movement's affiliates to obey the government in Riyadh.
The movement's affiliates in Yemen, who were strong on the ground during the revolution against the regime, were basically ordered to kneel down before the Saudi-led coalition which was interfering in the country. The Kingdom invited a number of Muslim Brotherhood officials, including the then leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and asked them to mediate with the Muslim Brotherhood's Al-Islah Party in Yemen on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition.
Following this, the now de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, declared that the time for religious restrictions on Saudi life has ended so "the harmonious period between the Brotherhood and the Kingdom has [also] ended."
When the Muslim Brotherhood was needed, it was praised and when it was not needed, it was demonised. This is the reason why the top religious institution in the Kingdom is defaming the moderate group in order to justify the open war against it. This approach has been hailed by Israel, which said, "We are in need for such approach."
According to the Secretary General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, it is "impossible" that the aforementioned statement was issued by a religious commission. "It must have been issued by the interior ministry and signed by the religious commission," insisted Dr Ali Al Qaradaghi.
There, in a nutshell, is the malaise affecting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under Bin Salman. Religion has become a tool to stay in power, and if that means denigrating organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, so be it. Nothing must get in the way of the Crown Prince being able to befriend the Zionist enemies of Islam in the West and, increasingly, across the Arab world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.