Skip to comments.The pen and the sword (Part Five of the Economist's survey of the Gulf States)
Posted on 03/26/2002 6:53:56 PM PST by lds23
The pen and the sword
Mar 21st 2002
From The Economist print edition
The complexities of Muslim identity
A STORY that takes pride of place in Saudi history books is how, one moonlit night in 1902, Saudi Arabia's founding father led 40 followers in a daring raid on Riyadh. It was Abdul Aziz ibn Saud's first step to avenging the rivals who had chased his clan from central Arabia. He was to succeed beyond his wildest dreams. But progress was slow at first until, at the urging of the puritan Wahhabi clerics who had been allied with the al-Saud family since the 18th century, Abdul Aziz sent out missionaries to preach jihad (holy war). Soon, bands of bedouin youths, determined to purge the faith of idolatry, began flocking to Abdul Aziz's banner. The new recruits, known as the ikhwan, or brothers, became his shock troops.
Abdul Aziz won some territory by marriage, some by cunning, but most by the sword, with the ruthless ikhwan at the head of every cavalry charge. When the holy cities of Mecca and Medina fell in 1925, he found himself master of a poor and unwieldy territory stretching from the Gulf to the Red Sea. Abdul Aziz was astute enough to see that his power to control, let alone expand, the realm was already stretched. He turned his attention from conquest to state-building, and soon he, along with most of his subjects, began to tire of the ikhwan's fanaticism. Pious though he was, Abdul Aziz chafed at their refusal to accept any form of innovation, which they claimed to see even in such useful things as cars, telephones and electric power. They also disapproved of their leader's courting of foreign oil prospectors. Their intransigence, he feared, would dash his hopes of future wealth.
Worse still, some of the ikhwan refused to abandon jihad. Ignoring the borders that Abdul Aziz had settled with British-ruled Iraq, they regarded the country's Shia Muslim population as fair game. After all, Abdul Aziz's own great-great-grandfather had led a Wahhabi army to sack the Shia shrines of Najaf and Kerbala back in 1803. But when Britain's air force responded to ikhwan raids by bombing the invaders, Abdul Aziz decided he had had enough. In 1929, at a place called Sabila, 200 miles north of Riyadh, his loyalists used truck-mounted machine guns to blast the ikhwan into submission.
Unlike that daring moonlit raid on Riyadh, the encounter at Sabila does not get much play in Saudi schoolbooks. But it shows how hard it can be to get the genie of jihad back into its bottle. It also demonstrates that when sufficiently challenged, the al-Sauds are capable of some pretty effective recorking.
Saudi Arabia is the only modern Muslim state to have been created by jihad
Saudi Arabia is the only modern Muslim state to have been created by jihad, and the only one based on an implicit alliance between the men of the pen, or religious scholars, and the men of the sword, an alliance symbolised by the Saudi national flag. The legacy of jihad has left an undercurrent of Wahhabi expansionism, which surfaces in the al-Sauds' generous funding of Islamic centres abroad, but also, fatefully, in ventures such as helping to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet rule.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience
The limits to wordly power
The clerical alliance places heavy constraints on Saudi rulers. A revealing account of Abdul Aziz's court in the 1920s by Ameen Rihani, a Lebanese-American author, remains just as valid today: The king may make a dozen treaties with infidel powers; he may call the people to...jihad as need be, he may grant a concession to an infidel corporation to exploit the oil and mineral wealth of the country, but he cannot with immunity change a tittle in the Koranic law or directly abrogate, even modify, a religious custom.
This is why the kingdom remains the most formally conservative of Muslim countries. Most other Gulf Arabs, and many Saudis too, find the country's rules, particularly with regard to women, unduly rigid. They would agree that it suffers from a condition that Mr Rihani described as Wahhabitis. Yet the kingdom has come a long way since the days when playing music or smoking cigarettes was punished by whipping. The Islamic code, or sharia, still governs civil and criminal law, but the need to engage with the outside world has allowed secular codes to creep into such spheres as commerce and banking. School textbooks may still exhort the faithful to shun infidels, citing narrow Wahhabi interpretations of tradition, and there are still provincial Saudis who will not respond to a Christian's greeting. But the vast majority of Saudis are perfectly at home in the wider world.
At least, so they thought until September 11th last year. The fact that the attacks on America were carried out in the name of Islam has shaken Muslims everywhere. In the Gulf, reaction to the event has taken two opposite directions. Perhaps predictably, it has provoked a backlash against jihadist extremism. Yet it has also roused Muslims' indignation at what they see as two injustices: that they are being collectively condemned for the actions of a few, and that the world is insensitive to Muslim suffering in places such as Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya.
The backlash against extremists in the Gulf has taken several forms, some public, others less so. Shaking off initial timidity, governments across the region have strongly attacked the institutional props to jihadist groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. The hundreds of millions of dollars a year that once flowed unchecked to Islamic charities, some of which had links to extremists, are now carefully vetted. Every GCC country has introduced laws against money-laundering and frozen suspect bank accounts. Security forces have tightened controls on the movement of people, and in Saudi Arabia have arrested a number of suspects.
Perhaps more important, September 11th has shaken the Gulf out of its complacency about Muslim identity. The region's would-be modernisers have ended their long silence on the jihadist agenda. Since September, and particularly since the collapse of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, editorial columns in the Gulf have lambasted jihadists for leading the flock astray. They have openly questioned the logic of framing the answers to current problems in scriptural terms, and called for changing the intolerant tone of religious schooling. In public at least, liberals still only hint at the benefits of separating religion and state, but they are cheered by the trend towards limiting religious space.
Even Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose reputation for probity lends his words extra weight, recently gave a warning to mosque preachers that exaggeration in religion was making them a target for those against Islam. This gentle princely circumlocution, however, also revealed how sensitive Saudi rulers are to the kingdom's conservative majority. Since September, the idea of powerful forces being ranged against Islam has gripped the region more than ever. This has less to do with sympathies towards Osama bin Laden, although his riches-to-rags tale continues to inspire some, than with exaggerated reports about western hostility towards Arabs. But then, with the less responsible American media describing Saudi Arabia as a cancer, its rulers as lacking in respect for life and humanity, and in one instance calling for an American takeover of oil fields, a certain prickliness might be expected.
Even Saudi liberals are dismayed by what they see as American heavy-handedness in pursuit of terrorism. Bush's war is just not marketable here, with those ultimate double standards, says a Jeddah businessman, who says he used to worship the American constitution until it produced a president without experience of foreign affairs. Why can't they see that our extremists are just like their Idaho militias? I admit their criticism of our schoolbooks is valid, but I doubt that Talmudic schools in Brooklyn are very polite about goys. And if we have crazy preachers, they have Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell.
A more common tack is to blame the West, and particularly America, for mistaking the symptoms (Islamist terrorism) for the disease (widespread Muslim anger about what many see as western contempt for their culture and aspirations). It's not true that these people were influenced by Islamic teachings, asserts a junior Saudi prince. They are like a cancer that needs something to feed on. If the West had addressed problems like Palestine, they would never have survived.
Such reactions suggest it will be a long time before Gulf societies dig to the roots of their discontent with the world. Ordinary Muslims naturally take it for granted that their faith is good, and bridle at suggestions that there might be something wrong with it. The lack of a formal hierarchy in Sunni Islam, moreover, allows for conflicting interpretations, so that reformists are always exposed to conservative backbiting. And as often as not, those religious scholars who have gained wide enough respect to initiate change are the products of narrow training in scripture and have little experience of the world. They guard their independence jealously, yet their salaries are mostly paid by the state. If they were to adopt the more liberal line preferred by the region's rulers, they might be suspected of selling out.
In search of certainties
It does not help that the opportunities for open debate are limited. This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia, with its wary princes, timid media and total lack of representative institutions. Yet even in open-minded Kuwait, where the press and parliament are downright rowdy, Islamist politicians have clouded issues and hindered reform with their point-scoring, rabble-rousing tactics. Allied with tribal traditionalists, they have blocked government moves to grant women the vote, and forced Kuwait University to segregate classes. Together with members of parliament keen to protect the emirate's ruinously expensive welfare system, they have scuppered efforts to open up the economy.
Here, and elsewhere in the Gulf, a schism seems to be opening up. This is not so much about western versus traditional lifestyles, the most obvious sign of which is the contrast between lightly clad and heavily veiled shoppers in the mall. As often as not, young people in the Gulf are equally comfortable with either form of dress. There is even a trend towards mixing, say, a traditional white robe with a baseball cap, or a modest-looking headscarf with heavy make-up. In tolerant Dubai, whose commercial ethos and non-Muslim majority preclude heavy enforcement of religious rules, there is no tension to speak of. The Arab natives of the city uphold traditional ways not because they are made to but because they want to.
The deeper quandary is about where people turn for answers to life's questions. Should they struggle for practical, temporal solutions, or surrender to the infinitely detailed prescriptions that religious scholars are happy to provide? Struck by a tidal wave of change, Gulf Arabs are looking for certainties to cling to. At the same time the region's societies are proud of their resilience. We are part of the world, says Dr Ahmed Salah, an adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Planning who sports the regulation untrimmed beard of a true Wahhabi. We cannot live alone. If we resist pressures, it is not because we are Islamic. We want to preserve our values like everyone else
So, they're kind of like really hostile Amish people.
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