The Group of 20’s Religion Forum: How much is too much balancing? A conversation with Ahmet Kuru

How much is too much balancing?

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Religious leaders gather in Bali this week for their first Religion Forum 20 summit (R20) under the auspices of the Group of 20 or G-20 that brings together the world’s largest economies.

The religious leaders are meeting two weeks before the G-20’s political leaders are scheduled to gather in Indonesia, the group’s current chair, for what potentially promises to be an acrimonious get-together attended by the presidents of the United States, Russia, and China.

The religious summit is likely to find it easier to agree on a common language than their political leaders, but that may be where the easy part ends.

Organized by Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s largest and most moderate independent civil society movement in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and democracy, the summit hopes to position religion as part of the solution to global problems rather than part of the problem.

That’s a tall order in a world in which religion has been politicized and religious nationalism, whether Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, is either an essential factor in polarized politics in countries ranging from the United States to India and Israel or being harnessed to legitimize autocratic rule in other parts of the world.

Finding common language may be relatively easy for religious leaders.

However, defining what those words mean is a different story, particularly given that R20 participants range from genuine believers in religious tolerance, pluralism, and unrestricted adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, to the extreme Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS and the World Muslim League.

The RSS is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ideological cradle. Similarly, the League, this year’s summit co-organiser, propagates Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s socially moderate but politically autocratic interpretation of Islam.

One measure of the summit’s success will be whether it can go beyond being another lovey-dovey interfaith conference, of which there have been many in the more than two decades since the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

Those conferences never operationalized their lofty statements. Instead, they allowed state-aligned, if not state-controlled, Muslim scholars to justifiably portray Islam as a religion of peace and moderation.

More problematic is that these conferences also ensured that autocrats could be projected as beacons of a form of Islamic moderation that was self-serving and socially but not politically tolerant or, in some cases, even genuinely religiously pluralistic.

It’s unclear if and how the R20 summit will avoid these pitfalls because of the diversity and diverging interests represented and because the devil is always in the detail. Separating the wheat from the chafe happens when the flesh is put on the skeleton by removing the shades of ambiguity.

To be fair, Nahdlatul Ulama has posed challenging questions it expects the summit to address.

These include: What values do our respective traditions need to relinquish, to ensure that religion functions as a source of genuine solutions, and not problems, in the 21st century?  And, What values do we need to develop to ensure peaceful co-existence, and why?

Nahdlatul Ulama hopes that the summit will spark a global Movement for Shared Civilizational Values, which seeks to infuse the world’s geopolitical and economic powers with moral and spiritual values.

It also envisions the creation of an international platform that would facilitate “honest and realistic dialogue’ within and between religious communities, to encourage mutual understanding, peace, and friendship among the world’s diverse peoples and civilizations.”

In addition, Nahdlatul Ulama has developed a long-term strategy that is as bold as it is risky.

Fundamentally, Nahdlatul Ulama hopes its principles of tolerance, non-discrimination, and pluralism that are rooted in the faith, and the need to reform what it calls “obsolete” elements of Islamic jurisprudence will rub off on the likes of the RSS and the Muslim World League.

There is much to be said for a strategy of engagement rather than ostracization that underlies the R20 and Nahdlatul Ulama’s approach. Yet, it’s also an iffy strategy with a capital I.

For the strategy to succeed, religious, nationalist, political, and/or state-controlled groups and entities need to want a genuine dialogue in which they are open to the evolution of their thinking rather than seek opportunities to exploit what Nahdlatul Ulama brings to the table for their own self-serving purposes.

There is little indication that these groups and entities see the R20 as anything more than a pr opportunity and for the cooptation of Nahdlatul Ulama, potentially their most convincing and compelling rival.

A recent Muslim World League tweet seemed to drive the point home. The League celebrated Indonesia’s recognition of the Religion Forum as an “integrated stage” of the G20. The group projected the Bali summit as a “religious partnership” and initiative of “Building bridges between East and West.”

To discuss all of this, Ahmet Kuru is the perfect interlocutor for this podcast. He is the author of a widely read and translated book, suggesting that underdevelopment and authoritarianism in the Muslim world are a product of the alliance between religious scholars and autocratic leaders.

Transcript of the conversation

Ahmet, welcome to the show and to what I hope will be a conversation and discussion rather than an interview.

Kuru (06:21):

Thanks for having me, James. I’m a fan of your podcast and you are really putting the R20  meeting in an important and depth framework in your introduction. I really look forward this conversation.

Dorsey (06:37):

The same here. Perhaps we should start with, maybe you want to add something to what I’ve said in the introduction. You may have some very different insights.

Koru (06:48):

In fact, I can only expand and add certain points. I have an agreement with you on first of all the importance of R20 and I am coming to meet you and other friends and participants in Bali. And also I also agree with you the significance of Nahdlatul Ulama not only in terms of its size but also its recent initiative of Humanitarian Islam with an emphasis on reforming certain aspects including the idea of leadership of the caliphate, the idea of the Islamic state based on Syria, and the idea of discriminating non-Muslims as kafir and Nahdlatul Ulama has taken a really bold step in reforming those issues at least into political ground and really providing a really important initiative to make an inclusive Muslim politics where non-Muslims are not discriminated but seen as equal citizens. So, at this point I value, and last year I had an article suggesting Middle Eastern scholars and audience to pay attention what is going on in Indonesian case and Nahdlatul Ulama reform.


And you have many writings on this important issue, but today we are here to discuss how the R20, it’s future, it’s impact will have something related to either I would call international diplomacy, which means representative of certain countries coming together with good faith, smiling and sharing important views. But it is as you put it another interface dialogue meeting as we have seen since 9/11 or can we go beyond that as a transnational intellectual dialogue where self-criticism can be also emphasized, where the rights of minorities can be also really emphasized because today I’m very concerned about minority rights in Asia as we have all seen the Muslim minorities in India, China and other parts of Asia have been really discriminated and can this be also a part of the agenda for an honest debate? These are some of the questions I’m asking.

Dorsey (09:27):

I think those are very important questions that we should come back to in a moment. One remark on that, I think the G 20 is a very powerful framework, but presumably it is also a limiting framework because it involves governments who are going to pursue their own interests and are particularly not interested in criticism. But before we get into all of that let’s stick with Nahdlatul Ulama for a moment because I think there are a number of factors that really make it unique if you wish. First of all, it’s an independent civil society movement, even if it has a political wing that has ministers in the government of Indonesian president Widodo. It’s concept of Humanitarian Islam stands for an embrace of genuine tolerance and pluralism as you noted, as well as, and I think that’s very important, unconditional endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


We can talk about the other elements of Nahdlatul Ulama strategy and how it wants to get from A to B in a moment, but perhaps we should start with the group’s advocacy of jurisprudential reform. And again you referred to that to free the faith of what Nahdlatul Ulama terms obsolete elements of Sharia or Islamic law. This is one major position that sets the group apart from any other Muslim movement in my mind, and poses the most serious religious challenge to autocrats’ employment of state controlled scholars and clerics to use religion to legitimize their regimes. You’ve written extensively about Nahdlatul Ulama and probably can elaborate on this much better than I can.

Koru (11:23):

And, in fact, this is an important point and you are very humble, James, I think you elaborate very nicely, but in this discussion I want to emphasize two points. First of all, on the issue of reform in the last 200 years, we had examples of state-led reforms either as a justification mechanism for their autocracies or some religion genuine reforms, top down political starting with Egypt, Umayad and Ottoman Empire. And I can say that the Otyoman legal attempt that’s called majalla, a new Islamic family law and civil law in addition to certain declaration by the Istanbul government or ruler or sultan that there will be an optimum citizenship including both Muslim and non-Muslims together, establishing a parliament in 1877, 60% Muslim, 40% Christian Jews and others. That was an attempt, and they abolished the blasphemy law, no punishment for blasphemy and apostasy but that was government- led.


It wasn’t reflected in madrassa religious discourses in Turkey, other the parts of the empire at the individual level. If you move from state to individual, of course we have Mohammed Abdu in Egypt, Fazul Raman in Pakistan and in the United States, a Quran-based approach or historicizing approach. But now between these two levels, state and individual, we have an organization, not large number of followers, and an open and unapologetic declaration that they want to have an interpretation of Islam compatible with democracy, equala citizenship and state-based law. This is important. I see something really filling a gap between certain individual reforms with very little organizational ties and certain state attempts that eventually didn’t really penetrate religious ground. But now I value this initiative, Humanitarian Islam and other initiatives in Indonesia, especially not the dilemma about the issue of the issue of really rejecting the idea of a Sharia-based Islamist Islamic state aspiration. So that’s how I would put it into context.

Dorsey (14:12):

Actually, you just made me think your comparison with the late period of the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating comparison and it brings to bear the fact that actually Nahdlatul Ulama may be the only civil society movement, at least that I’m aware of, not only give because of its size, but also because it actually has a network of thousands of madrasas throughout Indonesia where its concept of Humanitarian Islam is being taught and it is far less reliant on the authority of Middle Eastern religious institutions like for example, a Al Ahram in Cairo or the Islamic University in Medina because it has its own religious infrastructure, if you wish, of tens of thousands of Muslim scholars that are part of the movement and therefore it it’s positioned in a way that is almost unique.

Koru (15:26):

Yes, I agree with you. Since you have a very deep experience in Turkey, let me continue with this very significant Middle Eastern case. When I translate my article into Turkish, I ask my Turkish readers to make a comparison between religious groups in Turkey and religious groups in Indonesia, not only Nahdlatul Ulama but also Muhammadiyah,  and in India, there is the unfortunate idea that tariqas (Sufi religious orders) and Islamic communities, have their leaders for life and these leaders are regarded as a sign by God, which certain dreams, inspirations, et cetera. Therefore, it’s very unlikely to see a power transition challenge or term limit or criticizing the leader within the organization. Even the so-called moderate democratic organizations are very autocratic and hierarchical and only open to criticism from outside. But then I taught them to look at Nahhdlatul Ulama, there’s a list of leaders you can reach in which

Dorsey (16:44):

Muhammadiyah is another major Islamic civil society movement in Indonesia.

Koru (16:50):

Yes, thanks. Thanks for clarification.  So, we generally say Nahdlatul Ulama has around 90 million and then Muhammadiyah generally 30 million followers and both have universities and school systems as well as I understand Muhammadiyah is tends to be rationalist Mohamed Abdu type, whereas Nahdlatul Ulama embraces more Sufism and local tradition elements. But despite that, they both have a mechanism of choosing leaders. And recently Pak Yahya was elected as the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the main ruling leadership structure, which is something really rare to see in Turkey. Despite being a NATO member, an EU candidate, It doesn’t have the concept of elections for religious organizations. And this really is another important element in the case of Nahdlatul Ulama or Indonesia and in broader sense Middle East cases. Nahdlatul Ulama is case that Turkey and others should learn and really analyze.

Dorsey (18:13):

And not only was Pak Yahya elected, he had a campaign, and there were other candidates.

Koru (18:20):

So yes, a competitive election,

Dorsey (18:21):

Yes, it was not just an election, it was a competitive election. I want to digress briefly, but I think before we come back to the R20. This is important in terms of putting religious reform into context and the notion of reform, certainly the way Nahdlatul Ulama is putting it forward, counters an attitude that goes far beyond Islam. Historian David Hollinger pointed out in the recent article, he was talking about the United States and evangelicals, but I think it’s true in general, and that is that religious ideas are the one area that are not subject to scrutiny, at least not in a democracies in which with  freedom of speech everything is subject to scrutiny, Religious ideas are viewed as private concerns like the details of one’s marriage or bank account. By contrast, any criticism of Islam is denounced as blasphemy in Islamophobia. So, in a sense, what Nahdlatul Ulama advocates in a contemporary context, I would almost describe as revolutionary.

Koru (19:31):

I agree. And if we put it in a comparative and global context, as you know from 1920s to 1970s, the main trend in the Muslim world was very secular in terms of politics and government. Turkey with its legacy, even Iran wit the Shah until the Revolution, Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq, Gamal Abdul Nasser and the military regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, all the way to Bangladesh and Indonesia. They are many example of secularism in a broader sense or sometimes narrow sense governments, state funders, political parties, and in the world there were strong secular ideologies throughout the Cold War. In the last 50 years, what we see is a religious revival, not only in the Muslim world but also throughout world, in the United States for example. Since Jimmy Carter, we either have an evangelical president or a conservative. Obama is one of the few exceptions, and evangelical Christianity is really reasserting itself.


And now the conservatives in the US Supreme Court, some of them emphasizing Christian values, and in Europe and Israel more right wing parties, a Hindu nationalist in India, and even in Russia, despite decades of communist legacy. Now,s the Orthodox Christian patriarch is a partner of Putin and justified attacks on Ukraine. The reason why I’m telling all of this is that R20 is meeting at a time when religious majorities globally reach a level of power.

The secular hegemony ended with very few exceptions everywhere. Majority religious groups reach a certain level of domination or influence But I am really predicting a secularist backlash because the religious majority violates minority rights  in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or in India, Russia and elsewhere.

That will eventually create a backlash among the minorities or more secular minded young people. And before the protests start in Iran, we learned about certain public surveys saying that a majority of Iranians say that they are no longer Muslims. In Turkey, there is also a young generation coming with a reaction to the Islamist government. So, in this regard, the warning to all religious groups is that they either respect minority rights, make themselves go beyond majoritarian democracy, embrace some liberal values, or they will see very strong secular backlash before the end of the century. So that’s something all religious groups should really think about and go beyond the euphoria of majoritarian domination they are really enjoying.

Dorsey (22:56):

It’s interesting. I I’ve written extensively about this, and I’ve looked at multiple surveys that have been done in recent years and there seems to be a pendulum swinging. So, with other words, there was certainly for a number of years a redefinition of religiosity among Muslim youth particularly in the Middle East, but not only in the Middle East. So, Muslim young  people no longer wanted the ritual performance and the emphasis on how you publicly appear. They wanted a much more individual experience of religion, and they were skeptical both of temporal and religious authority. And then in a number of countries you saw, including Saudi Arabia but also Iran, a growing number of atheists or in Turkey deists who believed in God but not in religion and a fair number of conversions to for example Christianity which you see among other things below the surface in Iran.


But if you look at the most recent surveys, so in the last two months for example, in one case a majority and a majority being about two thirds to three quarters of Arab youth said that the most important element in their identity was religion. And that went beyond family, nation, ethnicity or tribe. So, with other words, you saw somewhat of a return of a more traditional interpretation of Islam. So, I think that, well, I basically agree with you that there’s going to be a secular backlash inevitably whichever way, and that ultimately youth may swing in that way too. You still seem to have a balancing act going on and it’s sort of the pendulum that swings from one extreme to another.

Koru (25:18):

Thanks for bringing the metaphor of seeing in pendulum. I think it’s very helpful to understand American politics or the religious politics in many countries. And an important element in this discussion is nationalism. As nationalism emerged as an alternative or even a reaction to Catholicism and the Watkin’s domination in Europe and then in the Muslim world, there was a very strong tension between nationalists and Islamists from Turkey to Egypt and elsewhere. But we are seeing in the last 20 years, interestingly, that right-wing populism brings together religion nationalism and a political leader. This really makes religious movements more powerful. But it may also be a facade because right-swing populism bring nationalism as a religion and nationalism both as identities. And at this point there are many people who belong without believing. So belonging without believing. Some surveys say that in Moscow, 60 to 70% of the people say they are Christian Orthodox, but at the same time 30- 40% say they are atheist. So, the numbers don’t match because they are atheist Christians. That’s their identity, but they don’t believe. So, in this regard, for those who really pay attention, religion as a source of morality, ethics, law and compassion, there’s some problem emerging with politicization, with the combination of nationalism and religion as a tool for discriminating the other, as a means of xenophobia. That’s really dangerous. And even if religion stays in public powerful as a symbolic power, it will lose its moral ground. And for those who are genuinely believers, that should be a concern too.

Dorsey (27:31):

Absolutely. And that brings us back brings us back to the Religion 20 forum and I think Nahdlatul Ulama, which is the main driver of the forum, sees this sort of as the first step in a process. Now, of course, the notion of ensuring that religion is a force for good rather than a driver of conflict is one that one can only embrace. Also, the notion that this would have to entail a religious reform suggests that those like Nahdlatul Ulama, who propagate general reform, want to tackle root causes rather than just score brownie points. I would even say that engaging with those that are part of the problem of the politicization and weaponization of religion as you refer to it, is a very good thing. The question is whether engagement in and of itself is enough or whether groups like Nahdlatul Ulama run the risk of being taken advantage of and legitimizing forces that are truly problematic. Am I being over cautious here or would you agree that Nahdlatul Ulama is embarking on a really risky road that could backfire?

Koru (28:47):

And these are all million dollars questions. You really put your finger on the core issues. These are all trad- offs because if you want to engage with powerful groups, some of them may be right- wing like the RSS which is affiliated with BJP in India or the Muslim World League of Saudi Arabia, the co-sponsor of the R 20 that is presented as a non-governmental organization but is very much a governmental organization in reality, having connections with right-wing groups in Europe or in the United States. These are all risky as you put it. And the trade-off is that on the one hand, talking to groups, sitting on the table is an opportunity to discuss and having some level of mutual impact if possible. But on the other hand, for many people around the world, especially minorities, that’s really kind of heartbreaking or make them concerned that for example, when you have a good friendship and almost justifying some Hindu nationals in India, what about Muslims in India?


How they feel, what they will think because we are talking about 200 million Muslims having deteriorating conditions or what about Muslims in China. Recently there was a vote in the United Nations and Muslim majority countries including Indonesia, voted favorably for the Chinese government on the issue of the Uyghurs. So, if a group of like Nahdlatul Ulama wants to keep a good diplomatic relationship with China, then they may sacrifice their moral position and really the position about protecting minority rights, they’re sacrificing that. So, these are all really important question to think about. There are trade-offs, no easy answer, but if as I emphasized at the beginning of the conversation, in order to be a transnational voice of reform and religious innovation and creativity, you have to really focus or at least give some attention to minority rights. Otherwise, you end up with an international diplomatic initiative which ends up with nice gestures but not any depth.

Dorsey (31:55):

I couldn’t agree with you more, although I would be unfair towards Nahdlatul Ulama if I didn’t  point out that in 2020 when Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State visited Indonesia, he visited Indonesia as a guest of Nahdlatul Ulama. Of course, he met with the government and so on, but the centerpiece of his visit was a speech at a conference that was organized but Nahdlatul Ulama, which was focused almost exclusively on China and on the brutal crackdown on the Uighurs. So, in sense, just to be fair to them, they have spoken out. I don’t think it’s going come up at the Religion Forum 20, even though I think it should. But coming back to the RSS, let me just note one thing to be fair, Ram Madhav, who’s is a close associate of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and he’s the former Secretary General of Modi’s political party and he’s a former executive committee member of the Hindu nationalist RSS seemed to suggest that the Nahdlatul Ulama strategy is one that could work.


Ram Madhav is viewed as a moderate among militants, whatever that means. He suggested in a recent newspaper article that the R20 would have a follow up in the next two G20 s under the chairmanship of India, the largest Hindu majority country in the world, in 2023 and Brazil, the largest Catholic country, in 2024. This process can help the three world religions, Madhav wrote together with Buddhism and other important religions, evolve a universal value system and also become equal partners with the political, economic and technological leadership of the world in defining the destiny of mankind in the 21st century. Now, it strikes me that the proof will be in the pudding, but Madhav’s statements seem to suggest that engagement could work.

Koru (34:12):

Yes. So that’s the beauty of democratic politics, the uncertainty. As long as we keep democratic elections and certain secular laws in countries like India, like Turkey, I think the pendulum may be able to swing and we may be hopeful. So ,let me share an anecdote. About two years ago, BB Hindi approached me for an interview. I told them that I don’t speak Hindi and they said we are going to translate. I said, then what is the reason you are approaching me? They said because the Hagia Sofia has turned from a museum and old church, then mosque, a  museum a mosque again. About a week after that, Modi was putting the foundational stone of a new Hindu temple on a mosque, which was destroyed with the idea that there was a very old Hindu temple in the shrine or the place.


So, we see these two are very much linked to each other and that’s what we want to ask you to talk about. I said to them, ok I’m going to talk with a condition that I will also bring in the United States because at the time Donald Trump was the president and he wasn’t establishing a church but he was holding a Bible on the streets of Washington DV. So therefore, I want to emphasize that we truly have a global problem and all religious and religious groups have these challenges and I hope the R20 will be a forum where we will be able to discuss in a really deep intellectual way all of these concerns and questions.

Dorsey (36:09):

I want to come back to something that you said before, and this also relates to what you just said, which is, and it relates to the chances of success for Nahdlatul Ulama. And that is that there’s of course a difference between the RSS and the Muslim World League. I mean, irrespective of one thinks of the RSS, it is a grassroots civil society movement, whereas the Muslim World League is everything, but it’s a tool that serves Mohammed bin Salman. To me, that is a crucial distinction. The league is  has every interest in co-opting Nahdlatul Ulama, neutralizing it as a serious challenge to Saudi Arabia’s notion of a moderate Islam that is socially liberal but politically autocratic. The RSS obviously would want Nahdlatul Ulama’s endorsement butit may also be somewhat more open to a genuine dialogue rather than a ceremonial exchange.

Koru (37:17):

Yeah, so let me emphasize two points. First for the audience, since you and I have been discussing the cases from India and Saudi Arabia, we should also tell them that as well as I see the program in the draft, there are many speakers and participants coming from Nigeria, a Catholic representative from there, and from United States. A Mormon church speaker will be there. And there are also some Muslims, Hindus, Christians from all around the world. So, it’s a global forum, but you and I focus on some that are very visible, and one in your question is the co-sponsor, the Muslim World League that or we Rabita in Turkish and Arabic. And my answer to you would be that, until very recently, this organization was the official, it’s still the official organization of Wahabi Islam, of Saudi Arabia with very rich financial resources coming from petro dollasr or oil money and promoting an ultra-conservative, understanding, for me a very narrow and problematic understanding of Islam, through translations, preachings and other ways.


Even in 1980s, for example, when Turkey had a secular military rule, they used Rabita money to pay salaries until it was revealed in Europe. It was a big scandal in Turkey. They said: How did you allow Saudi money to shape or teach Islam? But recently there was a change in Saudi Arabia and this change may also impact the World League or Rabita. I don’t know to what extent, but as I understand and you can help me elaborate for the audience. Mohamed bin Salman or MbS, the Crown Prince, initiated certain things, including the abolishment of moral police, permission to women to drive and attend soccer stadium games. And also he is publicly talking about these reforms in a recent interview. He was saying that hadiths, the records about the prophet’s saying,s if there are few narrators, they should not be taken as a source of law.


And there are so many restrictive laws in Saudi Arabia. He said, If I keep them, I will not be able to bring tourists and foreign indirect investment to my country. So therefore, MbS, in my mind, in the last five, six years tried to reform certain things. He seems to understand that oil money will be depleted and following the UAE model is trying to open Saudi Arabia to tourism and other foreign currencies. And in order to do that, he wants to abolish certain restrictions and some laws, and therefore this institution co-sponsoring the R20 is coming with some new understanding emphasized by the political leaders. So, this is good or bad, I’m really open to learn and I will pay attention to understand. But let me conclude saying that politically, as you emphasize, this is an authoritarian regime, and we all know how Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul and the very restrictive way they even pushed he Lebanese Prime Minister to resign on at gun point. And there are at list of problems. So, as a person who criticizes  reform in Turkey for being reformist, but at the same time authoritarian, of course there’s no way I would really like and appreciate an authoritarian reform. But I want to emphasize that there is something changing in Saudi Arabia and I’m, I’m ready to learn more about that.

Dorsey (42:02):

No question that Mohammed bin Salman has made some very significant changes, whether that’s lifting the ban on women’s driving, whether that’s enhancing to some degree, personal freedoms of women, professional opportunities, entertainment opportunities. It’s also very clear that he has not abolished the religious police, but he’s put them on a very tight leash, and they no longer are what they were in the past. Now, in my mind, all of that amounts to social reform and it was social reform. Let’s keep in mind Mohammed bin Salman is a man in his thirties. He’s not an octegenarian. He understands intuitively what youth aspirations are and he responds to those. But all of the reforms that he has done, qre social reforms, none of those reforms involve religious reform. So, with other words what he has done, he’s forced yhem down the throat of a very ultra-conservative religious establishment, or at least ultra-conservative in the past. But he hasn’t changed anything. Keep in mind that  until today, despite the fact that Mohammed bin Salman hsas been someone who emphasizes interfaith dialogue, you still cannot build a non-Muslim house of worship.


And I think that’s a real marker when it comes to the Muslim World League. The Muslim World League was a major tool in decades of propagating an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam worldwide. It no longer does. It now propagates Mohammad bin Salman and its own Secretary General Muhammad al-Issa. And the funds that it has and it is well funded, those funds are going into humanitarian aid primarily much more than into religious funding. And to be fair to Mohammad bin Salman, he has significantly cut back on religious funding internationally. And in fact, for example, in the case of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, that was really becoming problematic for the Saudis, h handed it back to the Belgians, let them deal with it. Well, yes, there’s been, in my mind, real reform, but it’s all been not religious.

Koru (45:20):

I agree. And if we look at one of my main points, the minority rights, what about the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia? MbS is very harsh and there are, as you know, executions in Saudi Arabia and some of the executions targeting Shia scholars.

Dorsey (45:43):

What you’ve seen is a very brutal crackdown on Shiite protests several years ago. And indeed, the execution of a very prominent Shia scholar and leader. But at the same time, what you’ve also seen is a fair amount of significant investment in Shia parts of the country, particularly in the East, that were not getting that investment in the past. Now it’s happening very much in the same way that gentrification is taking place in Jeddah or that this new futuristic 500 billion dollar city, Neom, on the Red Sea is being built whereby inner cities are getting destroyed and rebuilt and populations are getting displaced. Or in the case of Neom, their lands are being confiscated. So again, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s a mixed bag very much in my mind in an autocratic top-down setting.

Koru (47:06):

And again, as you said, that there are at least a major impulse motivation coming from well-educated young people. And we don’t know about them because Saudi Arabia is not an open society. But there are signs that European or American-educated young elite in Saudi Arabia may support reforms and want more. And if you go beyond, if you move from agency to structure, the financial structure will transform soon. In many Muslim-majority countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia, authoritarianism and what I call the ulama state alliance, they have been funded, fby oil money and the same we could say for Putin’s Russia, But in 30 or 40 years, maybe sooner, with the development of new technology resources, energy resources and depletion of oil money, as it’s happening in Bahrain to some extent, even in Indonesia, we’ll see that the financial pillars of authoritarian regimes will be weakened.

Dorsey (48:21):

I mean the key certainly for Saudi Arabia is going to be job creation. And the problem that you are seeing in Saudi Arabia is that there are segments of the youth that are benefiting already, but there are also segments of the youth, particularly in the second tier cities and rural areas, that have yet to see a yield. So, for Mohammed bin Salman, it’s all going to ride on whether or not his reforms will succeed.

But I want come back to the R20. As we round up this conversation, it strikes me that there is an interesting balance going on between Nahdlatul Ulama and Saudi Arabia. And that is of course, that if Nahdlatul Ulama gets the imprimatur of the Saudis simply by playing lip service to what Nahdlatul Ulama propagates, even if they’re not serious about it, then in effect they’re getting the imprimatur of the custodian of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. And that of course has enormous religious and spiritual value and gives Nahdlatul Ulama heft. The problem with that is that the trade-off is that Nahdlatul Ulama gives legitimacy to the kingdom’s autocratic form of Islamic moderation that is social but not political. And so the question is in the trade-off, who benefits the most, Nahdlatul Ulama or the Muslim World League?

Koru (49:58):

Yes. And when we look at the history as a laboratory, the major case about having mutual impact with Saudi Arabia is Egypt. And I don’t mean that Muslim relations will ever be as deep as the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian relationship, but your question just inspired me and I want to briefly say that many Muslim Brothers after secularist military operation or various other reasons moved to the Gulf and ,QAaradawi, who recently passed away, was one of them. And they went there with certain Islamist political views plus a classical Sunni understanding that is different from Shiism. And Saudis embraced them because Qataris, Kuwaits and others, were not very well established institutions, similar to Saudi Arabia in 1960s, 70s and 80s. At the end, today we see that they had a strong impact on each other in a way that Salafidm, as you know, in the first and only truly competitive election received 25% of the votes in Egypt.

Koru (51:31):

That was shocking for many observers. And the impact is visible on many Muslim Brothers and their interpretation of Islam. So, as I said, Nahdlatul Ulama’s partnership may be short term, a onetime thing, et cetera. But in a broad sense, I would say that Islam is a very strong message coming with the idea that piety, maximum piety is always better. And with symbolic gestures it makes sense for the mass of people, even for the elite. So ,in this regard, I would suggest that yes, Nahdlatul Ulama is a strong organization, millions of supporters and a very good important democratic or Humanitarian Islam. But even if the social reform way is still religiously very much against the idea of democratic reform and moderation and it may appeal to certain people, it’s a very strong competitive, therefore it should be taken seriously.

Dorsey (53:01):

Absolutely. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out at the Religion Forum 20. My sense is that we may not see a lot of that playing out publicly just because it’s in the context of the G20, but the dynamics that undergird what we were talking about throughout this conversation, I think are going to be playing out for quite a while and be playing out in G20s as we move forward over the next two to three years.

Koru (53:37):

Yes, And I’m very happy to have this conversation with you, James, because I elaborate my thinking maybe in the R20 itself. I will not have the chance to say all because I should also be more diplomatic.

Dorsey (53:56):

A reason why you’re speaking and I’m not <laugh>. Thank you very much for taking the time. It really was a pleasure.

Koru (54:08):

Thank you, James. It’s always a pleasure having an intellectual engagement with you.

Dorsey (54:14):

And I look forward to seeing you soon. All the best.

Koru (54:19):


Dorsey (54:19):

You. And thank you to everybody for listening to us, and I hope that this was useful and insightful. All the best to everybody. Goodnight.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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