Post-Islamism in the Arab Gulf states. A shift from Salafism to Islamic humanism

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A powerful current of Muslim revivalism has gone largely unnoticed by Westerners, mostly focused on Islamism, Salafism, and Jihadism. Although deeply rooted as far as the Muslim Nahda (Renaissance) of the 19th Century, it surfaced after their failure and the fall of the Islamic State in 2019. This development incidentally coincided with the coming to power in Saudi Arabia of a new constituency, whose main task has since been de-Wahhabizing the country. The path had been previously paved by the United Arab Emirates. Adapting religion to modernity and no longer the reverse, is one of the basic principles of the economic and social restructuring undertaken under the reign of King Salman. Economic efficiency is the new frame of reference, instead of religion. The new authoritarianism in the Arab Gulf states targets Salafism, as well as political Islam and Jihadism. The Arab Gulf states’ ongoing endeavour looks forward to repairing the damage caused by these three trends to Islam in general, as well as to Muslim societies, and to their image in the West, through promoting an Islamic humanism. The religious side of the major political change happening in Saudi Arabia falls within a broader post-Salafi trend, whereby sharia is not the priority anymore, the quest for universalism has replaced the quest for authenticity, and politics are secularised.


Since the falls of the Islamist regimes in Egypt in 2013 and in Sudan in 2019, and the quasi-disappearance of the so-called Islamic State in 2019 and al-Qaeda, the Middle East has seen an appeasement of the political instrumentalisation of Islam among Sunni Muslims. At the same time, the various Shiite militias have become relays of influence for Iranian nationalism, which has relinquished its Islamic revolutionary Messianism. The decline of Sunni and Shiite political Islam in the Middle East, including in the Gulf countries, results from a crisis of legitimacy and from social factors. The post-Islamist scene that follows it is not structured on the political and ideological level. In the Arab Gulf countries, it is notably marked by a gradual disappearance of Wahhabism. These changes tend to calm relations between Islam and the West.

1. The crisis of Islamism

Islamism, often called political Islam, is the political use of Islam for political and social change. It can target this end without the use of violence (this is the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni political Salafism), by revolutionary means (the political Shiism of Khomeini) or via terrorist violence (Jihadi Salafism of al-Qaeda and Daesh). Numerous studies have deciphered the evolution of Islamism over more than forty years. In the Middle East, Islamism marked the second phase of the confrontation against the domination of the West, following the era of decolonization, after the failure of Arabism.

Where they have come to power, in Iran, Egypt, Sudan or Afghanistan, the Islamists have discredited their ideology, like their Baathist or Nasserite predecessors had done to Arab nationalism. Jihadism, for its part, acts as an absolute repellent, including among Muslims, who happened to account as the quasi total of its victims. What remains on the religious ideologies market in the Middle East, are the various forms of quietist Salafism, meaning non-violent Muslim fundamentalism. The few Salafists who had been tempted by politics, are now abandoning it, to refocus on social or purely religious areas. Wahhabism, which is the best-known form of Salafism, is experiencing an unprecedented rout, as we will see. True, Wahhabis, Muslim Brothers and Jihadi fighters are still around, but their time has obviously elapsed, as is the case worldwide with Communists.

The current crises of Islamism and Salafism overlaps politics and ideology. They also reflect the consequences of the demographic transition in the Middle East, which undermines the entire patriarchal society, beyond its political divisions. The aging and anachronistic frameworks of Islamism are in the process of being overtaken by new Muslim reformers among the wider public. The latter’s Islamic-secular message ensures that they are well received in a society shaped by religious discourse, but eager to break its archaic shackles and to put aside its despotism. Islamism proved unable to respond to the evolution of societies in full socio-cultural effervescence, beginning with the frustrations expressed by the Arab and Iranian uprisings of the 2010s.

These developments showed that the aspiration of change went beyond rejecting authoritarian policies, as they most deeply attacked social authoritarianism. Islamism could not respond to such a demand for social transformation, given its authoritarian nature. The current Arab and Iranian cultural change is, in fact, placed under the sign of the general decline of patriarchy and therefore of social, religious, and political despotism. Hence the failure of the authoritarian use of religion, particularly in the political domain, including by Islamist opponents. Their decline partially results from a conflict of generations. It is an anthropological change resulting from demographics and not only from socio-political evolution.

Setting aside the identity problem which underlined the fortunes of Islamism, post-Islamism highlights sociological changes already noted by analysts of the Arab Spring, namely the impact of the demographic transition on the patriarchal order, the substitution of membership in allegiance, the improvements in the condition of women and their access to public space, the integration of neo-urban residents into socio-political circuits, the progressive investment of the field of the sacred by reason, thanks to progress in education, the taming of Western modernity attenuating the anti-imperialism inherited from decolonisation, and the diversification of external partners, towards the BRICs nations.

2. What is the content of post-Islamism?

One cannot identify any post-Islamist doctrine, nor therefore “post-Islamists”. The ongoing abandonment of Islamism and Salafism has not led to the adoption of a doctrine, because this move rejects any new straitjacket. The ideological content of post-Islamism, its various currents and their structuring, its social and religious impacts, its relationship to modernity and other religions, reflect an intellectual proliferation and an aspiration for appeasement and tolerance, which undermine the image of archaism and violence associated by the wider Western public with contemporary Islam. Post-Islamism aspires at trying to erase the frustrations, resentment and alienation that mark the relationship of Middle Easterners to the West, so that to build peaceful and self-centred societies.

The anthropology of post-Islamism is one of hedonism and personal development, opposed to the Islamist doxa of sacrifice for an oppressed collectivity. It is based on moral values deriving from globalisation and neoliberalism, namely secularisation, tolerance, individualism, hedonism, feminism, commodification, Americanization and therefore deculturation.

On a religious level, post-Islamism can be defined as an attitude and a set of practices falling within the religious field, aiming at creating a favourable context for secular modernization and preventing its social rejection, which forms a potential source of the politicisation of religion. Many Muslims now blame the political use of Islam for having cast a shadow over their religion, and therefore Islamism for having worked against Islam. The 2020s thus see the rise, among Sunnis and Shiites alike, of a renewed Muslim thought, recalling in certain respects the desire of the Nahda (Renaissance) of the 19th century, to adapt Arab and Muslim societies to modernity, nowadays called globalization. This powerful current Muslim revivalism goes apace with a growing trend of secularization in the Middle East. It has gone largely unnoticed in the West, still mostly focused on Islamism, Salafism, and Jihadism, at a time where the three of them are losing most of their adepts in the Middle East, if not vanishing.

3. Post-Islamism in the Arab Gulf states

Post-Islamism surfaced after the fall of the so-called Islamic State in 2019. This development incidentally coincided with the coming to power in 2016 in Saudi Arabia of a new constituency under King Salman, whose main task has since been de-Wahhabizing the country. It might be viewed as pure coincidence, except by any observer of that pivotal moment in Jeddah, which was spearheading social change at the time. Given the countless hurdles which had impeded change under the reign of the reformist King Abdullah, nobody was betting a penny on his brother Salman, usually viewed as a conservative, when he succeeded him in 2015. Hardly anyone had heard about his son Mohammed, who appeared the year after as the engine of the blossoming of the underground change bursting out of the Saudi youth. It is the conjunction of this grassroots phenomenon and of change at the top that ensured the success of Saudi radical reforms.

Adapting religion to modernity and no longer the reverse, is one of the basic principles of the economic and social restructuring undertaken under the reign of King Salman. Economic efficiency is the new frame of reference, instead of religion. The path had been previously paved by the United Arab Emirates. Both countries fiercely oppose political Islam, namely the Muslim Brothers. In Saudi Arabia, part of the Wahhabi ulamas had managed to shape a political movement based on their ideology in the 1990s, known as the Sahwa, which endangered the rule of the Sauds at that time.

The Saudi move in the religious field has since 2016 gone far beyond crushing this political challenge. The religious side of the major political change happening in Saudi Arabia under King Salman, falls within a broader post-Salafi trend, whereby sharia is not the priority anymore and should be reinterpreted according to modernity, where the aspiration to universalism has replaced the quest for authenticity, and where politics are secularised.

One should avoid understanding this change wrongly, as a secularist move against Islam. On the contrary, the way post-Islamist ulamas express its content, shows that their goal is to save Islam from its distortion by Islamists and Salafists, rather than marginalising it. A major point to stress here is that although this change looks authoritarian, coming from an autocratic ruler, it coincides with a sociological change within the Saudi society, which encompasses secularisation, openness to the West, rejection of patriarchal social relations, and a silent cultural and social revolution. Mohammed bin Salman embodies the aspirations of his generation to tear down the walls of a suffocating patriarchal society and to secularise it, without leaving religion behind.

He uses neoliberalism as a tool to get rid of neo-patriarchal norms sanctified by Salafis in the deep country. The reforms promoted by the Saudi regime are changing everything in a subtle way, keeping the old frames and emptying them gradually from their substance. A good example is the sudden and never advertised vanishing of religious police from public space. More important are the complete updating of school curricula and the deep reshuffle of the whole legal system, so that to liberate it from Salafi norms.

The latter is done by invoking ijtihad, meaning through reinterpreting religion to adapt to the modern world, in particular international Law, and universal values. Opposing codification of law under the pretext of the preeminence of the sharia, as interpreted by Salafi judges, used to be a vested interest, since the more laws were codified, the less judges had the power to shape society according to their will. Any legal progress codifies a social evolution, on which its legitimacy depends, through its implementation. The change may be seen from outside as a slow trend, but most of the Saudis view it as incredibly quick, knowing the silent resistance of clerics and, more broadly, of the patriarchal backbone of the society.

Although led by social change, the move is firmly conducted by the regime, mainly for economic reasons. The anti-productive Wahhabi doxa represented a mental obstacle that curbed initiative and development. Saudi Arabia used to be a country where the state religion legitimised uneconomic behavior, through prioritizing religious activities over work, and erecting multiple bans. Though impossible to evaluate, its Wahhabi bill must go up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Wahhabism can be viewed as a luxury of a rentier country that has become anachronistic at the time of the return to economic rationality and of the march towards the post-oil era.

The anti-modernism of Wahhabism goes hand in hand with the rentier logic and is incompatible with a diversified economy. Dependence on the oil rent combined with Salafism has alienated society from work in general, transforming the individual from an active producer to a passive consumer. Religious norms had gradually conquered all spheres of daily life in the country, to the point that the lifting of the Wahhabi mortgage represented a prerequisite for the launch of the economic restructuring that shaped “Vision 2030”, as published by the heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi regime now promotes citizenship rather than religious affiliation, and freedom of conscience. It rejects anti-Christian and anti-Jew rhetoric, has set up ecumenical events, and pushes reconciliation with the Shia. The try to advertise a Islamic humanism, also aims at wiping out its tarnished image. The perception of Saudi Arabia in the West being closely linked with Wahhabism, seen as an outdated dogma leading to sectarianism or even terrorism, this religious strategy should be understood within a global policy of rehabilitation in the frame of globalisation. The goal is two-faced, a priority given to inner reforms, leading to a broad change in the country’s global image, with an aim to feed domestic modernisation, forming a virtuous circle.

4. What impact for post-Islamism?

The post-Islamist trend, as outlined in the ‘Vision 2030’, undermines the Saudi-Wahhabi complex resulting from the founding pact of the Saudi state. As the latter has been built on Wahhabism from its very beginning in the middle of the 18th Century, the ongoing move towards de-Wahhabization is a historic one. The Western cliché of a ‘Wahhabi Arabia’ is outdated. Moreover, the flourishing of post-Islamism in the “land of the two holy mosques” of Mekka and Madina, would give it an enormous impact on contemporary Islam as a whole and its relationships with other religions.

For Mohammed bin Salman, religion must serve the prosperity of society and not the other way around. However, he cannot be accused of hostility towards religion, when switching from fundamentalism to an Islam coping with modernity. The application of his program marks the end of the primacy of the spiritual over the temporal in Saudi Arabia. It goes apace with the post-Islamist trend described above, but goes beyond getting rid of political Islam, as it chases non-political Salafism as well, a development showing that post-Islamism is not only about relinquishing Islamism, but rather about trying to build an Islamic path to modernity.

The impact of Wahhabism on worldwide Islam has always been exaggerated in the West. The latter now ignores the ongoing international impact of de-Wahhabization, along with its usual misunderstanding of Muslim affairs and stigmatization of Saudi Arabia since 9/11. This trend is hardly noticed, because it contradicts the growing Islamophobia and scapegoating of Islam in the West.

The policies of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates regimes cannot be reduced to the sole enlistment of Islam in the service of power. This latter process is, conversely, not the only objective of their fight against the politicisation of Islam, which also aims to protect the construction of the State from interference from religion, but also the latter from Islamism, which distorted it in their eyes.

The opening of these two regimes to a Islamic humanism is part of their desire to promote Islam’s contribution to social harmony by diverting society from politics. Their care to separate the Mosque from the State therefore does not lead to a strictly secular policy, which would see the State disengage from the religious domain. These regimes rather put religion in the service of a secular policy, under the double sign of religious tolerance and intolerance towards the political use of Islam. They do not conduct a religious policy, but a strategy of exclusion of religion from the political field, which therefore rejects the politicization of Islam and serves their authoritarian power.

This strategy resembles the official Islam traditionally promoted by many Arab or Muslim regimes, but the emphasis placed on tolerance makes it innovative: establishment of a dialogue with all currents of Islam; Extension to other religions of the traditional Muslim tolerance towards other revealed religions. Even if they are careful not to encroach on the theological domain, the Saudi and Emirati regimes therefore favor an aggiornamento of Sunnism.

A pending question is why this development mainly happens in two Gulf Arab countries. A first answer is that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have switched during the last years to a positivist ideal, which therefore takes the opposite view of Wahhabi Salafism. A second factor lies in history. These two countries have neither faced colonialism, nor Western interference in their national path. Their population does not suffer from external aggression, nor does it carry the culture of resentment of formerly colonised countries. They therefore scarcely feel the weight of past domination, which feeds Islamist ideologies. Usama bin Laden was obviously Saudi, but nevertheless a dissident, even in his own family. Mainstream Wahhabis have always opposed al-Qaeda and Daesh alike. The third factor is obviously the high standard of living of these countries, which tends to weaken politicisation.

But post-Islamism is not limited to these two countries. Many of its Sunni ulamas come from various Arab countries and have found in the United Arab Emirates, the atmosphere conducive to this Muslim reforms. A strong Egyptian current of liberal Islam, often Sufi, has also developed, taking advantage of the space left open by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Shiites who follow a parallel path cannot, for their part, remain in Iran, which remains on the fringes of evolution. Finally, the congresses of reformist ulamas organized mainly by the World Islamic League in Saudi Arabia bring together all the nationalities and tendencies of contemporary Islam.


The Arab Gulf states’ ongoing endeavor looks forward to repairing the damage caused by Salafism, Islamism and Jihadism to Islam in general, as well as to Muslim societies, and to their international image, through promoting an Islamic humanism. The West unfortunately witnesses increasing Islamophobia at a time when hostility towards it in the Middle East is no longer fueled by political Islam, but rather by nationalism, as shown by the ongoing war in Gaza. In these conditions, countries in the West are playing with fire when tending to stigmatise Islam through equating it with Islamism. Rejecting the Muslim part of their population and their culture moreover amounts to ignoring the ongoing post-Islamist openness and refueling anger.



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