Monday, June 28, 2010

A Call to the Sane Within Saudi Arabia

A Call to the Sane Within Saudi Arabia


Tarek Heggy

A little over two hundred and fifty years ago an alliance was forged between Mohamed ibn-Saud and Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab, whereby the former agreed to rule according to the doctrine preached by the latter. Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahab had laid down the broad outlines of his call (I shall not call it a school of jurisprudence, for the man was simply a missionary, not a theologian) by 1798, a year which witnessed the first confrontation with the West in modern times, namely Napoleon's campaign into Egypt. The first years of the fledgling Saudi state (soundly crushed by Ibrahim Pasha in 1818), and the second Saudi state (which came to an end in 1891) were marked by an obdurate rejection of modernity and of all signs of modern civilization, combined with hatred of non-Muslims and indeed of all Muslims who did not follow the same tenets. The Egyptian or Syrian Muslim who saw nothing wrong in singing, for example, was considered by the first and second Saudi states to be no better than an infidel. And when the Brotherhood of Najd fought against King Abdel Aziz for allowing the signs of modern civilization such as radio and the motor-car into the Kingdom, as well as permitting foreigners into the Arabian Peninsula (bearing in mind that this was during the twentieth century), they were simply giving vent to the archaic tenets and beliefs of a system of jurisprudence that had no place in modern times, and could have survived nowhere except in a terrain of this kind whose geographic features imposed its isolation. The ideas of the Wahabi school are typical of a superstructure (thought) born of a specific infrastructure (the geo-political and economic features of the Najd desert), and adherents to this school cannot conceive that no other place on earth would have put up with such beliefs. They are living proof of the truth of Marx's conclusion, derived from the theories of both Feuerbach and Hegel, that there is a definite link between the ideas and beliefs of a community and the infrastructure (geographical and economical) in which it lives.


Long before the Americans used the Islamists during the Cold War to help them defeat the Soviet Empire, Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud used Islamists to consolidate his power. In 1912, he incepted and financed a movement known as the Ikhwan, a forerunner of the Islamists/jihadists deployed by the Americans against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The symbiotic relationship between Abdul Aziz and the Ikhwan ended in 1930 with a ferocious battle between the erstwhile allies when the Saudis, led by King Abdul Aziz, crushed the Ikhwan, led by Faisal al-Dawish. The Ikhwan's religious views were so extreme that they considered any sign of modernity or progress the work of the Devil. As their alliance with Ibn Saud coincided with a period of great scientific advances, they had plenty of abominations to contend with: the telegraph, cars, telephones then radios were all regarded as sinful and anyone who did not resist them as a heretic. Such was the fanaticism of this lunatic fringe that one of its members advanced on the Sultan [Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud] with a pair of scissors and proceeded to shorten Ibn Saud's robes in full view of his entourage, thereby driving home the message that the principles of Wahhabism were stronger than the authority of the Saudis.

Abdul Aziz, first as prince, then sultan then king, used the Ikhwan when he needed them to further expand his suzerainty. For like all those who welcome death as a passport to paradise, they were fearless fighters. The problem was that they were equally fearless in standing up to Abdul Aziz whenever they considered him to have deviated from the true path. During the years of their increasingly uneasy alliance [from 1912 until he succeeded in asserting his dominion over most of the Arabian peninsula in 1925], fierce clashes often broke out between them. For example, they lashed out at him when he stopped riding camels and took to riding cars, publicly berating him when "he left Riyadh in 1925 on the back of a camel and returned in a Cadillac!" This was the last straw for the sultan, who could not countenance any challenge to his authority as the undisputed leader of most of the Arabian Peninsula. The final showdown came in a battle between Abdul Aziz and the Ikhwan . They were routed and their leader, Faisal al-Dawish, was captured and imprisoned, dying in captivity a few years later.

But the question is whether the Saudi state, successful though it may have been when it came to defeating its enemies, has been equally successful in ridding itself of the fanatical ideas propounded by the Ikhwan of Najd. The truth is that the Saudi state, whether in its first, second or third incarnations, has never been free of the pernicious effects of the doctrine preached by the Ikhwan.

Today the Saudi state resists the education of women, frowns on television broadcasts, bans women drivers and considers music and singing sinful. All attest to the continued influence of Ikhwani ideas in the Kingdom, as do the ban on teaching music and philosophy in Saudi schools and the refusal to appoint women to the Shura Council or in cabinet posts. There is also the spate of fatwas inspired by this madness, like the fatwa in which Ibn al-Baz concludes that the earth is not round and the one proscribing the sending of flowers to the sick! To stop the madness, the Saudi establishment must take a firm stand preferably accompanied by a psychological campaign.

Having said that, however, we must in all fairness distinguish between Wahhabism, its Ikhwan offshoot and the Saudi family. The truth is that not one of the nineteen books written by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab calls for any of the excesses required by the Ikhwan. Also, even though the Saudi family entered into an alliance with the Wahhabis at a certain political stage and with the Ikhwan at another, it does not necessarily share their views.

I believe the House of Saud has reached a watershed in its relationship with both the Wahhabi school and the remnants of the Ikhwan. The House of Saud, which is not ideologically implicated in the ideas of Wahhabism and the Ikhwan, is today called upon to do the following:


•  Stand up to extremist elements in the country like their father did eight decades ago.


•  Remove Wahhabi and Ikhwan zealots from influential positions in the institution of education.


•  Remove Wahhabi and Ikhwan zealots from influential positions in the Ministry of Wakf , [religious endowments] Da'wa [the call to Islam] and Hajj .


•  Abolish the system of state-sponsored religious vigilantes who patrol the streets and mete out instant punishment for any perceived violation of strict Islamic practices, in total contradiction with the concept of the modern state.


•  Reduce the huge budget allocated by the Kingdom to the religious establishment [nearly three billion US dollars] and reallocate it to the fields of education and health.


•  Encourage moderate professors of Islamic jurisprudence to set a timetable for introducing their students to Hanafi, Maliki and Shafite sources in place of the Hanbalite sources now exclusively in use, so that in time the people of Saudi Arabia reach a stage of religious maturity in which they recognize that the doctrine of Wahhabism is not the only, or even the major, model of Islam. 


•  Launch an offensive against the Ikhwani obduracy on such issues as the appointment of women ministers, the inclusion of women in the Shura Council, allowing women to drive, allowing male teachers to teach female students and female teachers to teach male students, in order to promote a climate favourable to enlightenment and progress.


•  Given that hundreds of the Islamic centers established by Saudi Arabia throughout the world have become a breeding ground for fanaticism and extremism and crucibles for violence, blood lust and terrorism, an alternative plan must be laid down to transform them into community service centers rather than allow them to continue disseminating obscurantist ideas that spawn a mentality of violence which has distorted the image of Islam in the eyes of the world over the last few decades.


I firmly believe that unless the descendants of the great King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud follow the example he set with his stand against the Ikhwan of Najd and their leader, Faisal al-Dawish, eighty years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is headed for a highly detrimental confrontation with advanced societies. I also believe that the collapse of the Saudi regime, whether in favour of the extremists or of the trend calling for the country's partition and division would represent a great strategic danger to all the countries of the Gulf and the Middle East.





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