Saudi king shakes up religious establishment
RIYADH–The Saudi king on Saturday dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast “immoral” content, signalling an effort to weaken the country’s hard-line Sunni establishment.
The shake-up – King Abdullah’s first since coming to power in August 2005 – included the appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained. New judges were also named and the Consultative Council – an appointed advisory body – was reshuffled.
Saudi Arabia’s king does not have unlimited power, rather he has to take into account the sentiments of the sprawling ruling family as well as that of the powerful religious establishment, which helped found the state nearly a century ago.
For Abdullah to finally be able to make these changes indicates he has built the necessary support and consensus in the religious elite and in the ruling family.
The religious establishment has come under persistent criticism, in particular, because of the actions of the judiciary and the religious police. Agents of the moral police are responsible for ensuring women are covered and men go to mosques for prayer, among other things, but many Saudis say they exploit their broad mandate to interfere in people’s lives.
The changes help to dilute the influence that hard-liners have had for decades. The king, who has promoted moderation and interfaith dialogue, has brought in a group of relatively young officials and scholars.
“This is the true start of the promises of reform,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper and an experienced observer of the kingdom’s politics. “They bring not only new blood, but also new ideas,”
“They are more moderate and many are also close to the reform agenda of the king, having worked closely with him.”
The delay in making these changes could also be in part because the necessary officials and scholars had to be trained for the job.
“The people now in charge are not being ordered to implement reform,” Khashoggi added. “They believe in reform.”
The king also made changes to the makeup of an influential body of religious scholars known as the Grand Ulama Commission. Under the changes, its 21 members will now represent all branches of Sunni Islam, instead of the single strict Hanbali sect that has always governed it.
That shift will for the first time give more moderate Sunnis representation in the group, whose duties include issuing the edicts known as fatwas.
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