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Saudi authorities have arrested more than 10 prominent activists, many of them women, and are describing them as “traitors.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t apologize for much. In the past year, his government has massacred civilians in Yemen, kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon and spent $450 million of unknown provenance on a painting while rounding up hundreds of people for alleged corruption. He’s publicly defended those actions.

But there’s one thing the crown prince is always willing to express remorse about: Islam, or at least the version dominant in his country. “We were victims,” he recently told “60 Minutes.”

Crown Prince Mohammed’s pitch to governments, citizens and, most importantly, investors, explicitly plays on global Islamophobia and many Muslims’ own frustrations about the violence committed in the name of their religion. It neatly identifies Islam as a problem and the prince as the solution. And this summer is supposed to bring a marquee moment for the battle against fundamentalist Islam the crown prince says he’s fighting: On June 24, women will gain the legal right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

But the “reformer” prince’s rhetoric is colliding with the reality of his rule. Since May 15, his government has been arresting human rights advocates — among them some of the most prominent Saudi women activists — in a crackdown that perpetuates long-standing Saudi repression.

The crown prince’s playbook is an old one. For strongmen in the Muslim-majority world, the trope of the scary Muslim is invaluable. It allows them to bond with skeptics of Islam abroad — remember the orb? — and constantly justify their continued rule.

After all, the argument goes, do you really want their people in charge instead? It’s the kind of language Syrian President Bashar Assad proudly uses to declare himself a vital defender of secularism and paint his opposition, including peaceful activists, as essentially too Muslim.

Talk of “moderation” and “modernization” has defined regional rulers seeking to solidify their control since at least the early 20th century. But Muslim leaders became especially invested in that language after the 9/11 attacks prompted global soul-searching about the roots of terrorism, according to Annelle Sheline, a George Washington University doctoral student who studies the way governments in the region brand themselves.

These leaders watched with alarm as members of the George W. Bush administration argued that the key to peace was spreading democracy.

“The Middle East regimes were not so interested in having the spotlight shined on their activities or sharing their power,” Sheline said. Eventually, “the Bush administration was fairly willing to buy into the bill of goods that a lot of Arab regimes were selling, which was that it’s not authoritarianism, it’s Islam, and we need to change Islam.”

Underpinning that alliance is one goal: the survival of a regime in which the al Saud family and clerics close to them are all-powerful. As long as that remains the crown prince’s ultimate priority ― and he authorizes those working for him to punish even the slightest questioning of the system ― any moves away from state-sponsored orthodoxy won’t make his society more stable.

Abroad, too, it’s unclear that the crown prince’s vows of change will help to reduce militancy.

None of that is to say the crown prince and his ilk should start advising Muslims to become less tolerant. “To the extent that anybody buys into [Western-backed governments’ ‘moderate’ narrative], that’s good. We’d rather have the government putting out messages around toleration and moderation,” Sheline said of the view among U.S. officials.

But the cracks within Saudi Arabia, a country of 20 million people and the center of the global trade in energy and weapons, are not going away. Clamping down on intellectuals, stoking nationalism against Iran and calling activists “traitors” won’t heal them. Nor will the flows of foreign capital that Crown Prince Mohammed has identified as his top target.

Real change will require rethinking Saudi “practice” altogether — not just the religious kind. ~ Akbar Shahid Ahmed – HuffPost – ~