Saudi Arabia, The Mainspring of Islamic Radicalism
By Nauman Sadiq
20 December, 2015
If we look at the evolution of Islamic religion and culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it hasn’t been natural. Some deleterious mutations have occurred somewhere which have negatively impacted the Islamic societies all over the world. Social selection (or social conditioning) plays the same role in the social sciences which the natural selection plays in the biological sciences: that is, it selects the traits, norms and values which are most beneficial to the host culture. Seen from this angle, social diversity is a desirable quality for social progress; because when diverse customs and value-systems compete with each other, the culture retains the beneficial customs and values and discards the deleterious traditions and habits.
A decentralized and unorganized religion, like Sufi Islam, engenders diverse strains of beliefs and thoughts which compete with one another for gaining social acceptance and currency. A highly centralized and tightly organized religion, on the other hand, depends more on authority and dogma rather than value and utility. A centralized religion is also more ossified and less adaptive to change compared to a decentralized religion.
When we look at the phenomena of religious extremism and the consequent militancy and terrorism in the Af-Pak region in particular and the Islamic world in general, it is not a natural evolution of religion, some deleterious mutations have occurred somewhere which have negatively affected the whole of Islamic world. Most Pakistani political commentators blame the Pakistani security establishment for deliberate promotion of religious extremism and militancy throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s in order to create a Jihadi narrative which suited the institutional interests and strategic objectives of the Pakistani military.
There is no denying of this evident fact that the Pakistani security establishment had wantonly nurtured Islamic radicalism and militancy in the Af-Pak region but the Pakistani military’s support for Islamic jihadism during the Cold War is only one factor in an array of factors in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of Islamic radicalism and the agents that are responsible for it; because the phenomena of Islamic extremism is not limited to the Af-Pak region, the whole of Islamic world from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria to Indonesia, Malaysia and even the Muslim minorities of Thailand, China and Philippines have also become the victims of this phenomena and obviously the region-specific security establishments do not have any influence over all the geographically separate and remote regions of the Islamic world.
In my opinion, the real culprit behind the rise of Islamic extremism and jihadism in the Islamic world is Saudi Arabia. The “Aal-e-Saud” (the descendants of Saud) have no hereditary claim to “the Throne of Mecca” since they are not the descendants of the prophet, nor even from the tribe of Quresh (there is a throne of Mecca which I will explain later.) They were the most primitive and marauding nomadic tribesmen of Najd who defeated the Sharifs of Mecca violently after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Their title to the throne of Saudi Arabia is only de facto and not de jure, since neither do they have a hereditary claim to the Saudi monarchy nor do they hold elections to ascertain the will of the Saudi people. Thus, they are the illegitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia and they feel insecure because of their illegitimacy, a fact which explains their heavy-handed and brutal tactics in dealing with any kind of dissent, opposition or movement for reform in Saudi Arabia.
The phenomena of religious extremism and jihadism all over the Islamic world is directly linked to the Wahhabi-Salafi madrassahs which are generously funded by the Saudi and Gulf’s petro-dollars. These madrassahs attract children from the most impoverished backgrounds in the Third World Islamic countries because they offer the kind of incentives and facilities which even the government-sponsored public schools cannot provide: such as, free boarding and lodging, no tuition fee at all, and free of cost books and stationery.
Apart from madrassahs, another factor that promotes the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology in the Islamic world is the ritual of Hajj and Umrah (the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.) Every year millions of Muslim men and women travel from all over the Islamic world to perform the pilgrimage in order to wash their sins. When they return home to their native countries after spending a month or two in Saudi Arabia, along with clean hearts and souls, dates and “zamzam,” they also bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and their “true” and puritanical version of Islam, which some Muslims, especially the rural-tribal folk, find attractive and worth-emulating.
Authority plays an important role in any thought system; the educated people accept the authority of the specialists in their respective field of specialty; similarly, the lay folk accept the authority of the theologians and clerics in the interpretation of religion and scriptures. Aside from authority, certain other factors also play a part in an individuals’ psychology: like, purity or the concept of sacred, and originality and authenticity, as in the concept of being closely corresponding to an ideal or authentic model. Just like the modern naturalists who prefer organic food and natural habits and lifestyles, because of their supposed belief in “the essential goodness of nature” (naturalistic fallacy,) or due to their disillusionment from the man-made fiascoes, the religious folks also prefer a true version of Islam which is closer to the putative authentic Islam as practiced in Mecca and Medina: “the Gold Standard of Petro-Islam.”
Yet another factor which contributes to the rise of Wahhabi-Salafi ideology throughout the Islamic world is the immigrant factor. Millions of Muslim men, women and families from all over the Third World Islamic countries live and work in the energy-rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Oman. Some of them permanently reside there but mostly they work on temporary work permits. Just like the pilgrims, when they come back to their native villages and towns, they also bring along the tales of Arab hospitality and their version of “authentic Islam.” Spending time in Arab countries entitles one to pass authoritative judgments on religious matters, and having a cursory understanding of Arabic, the language of Quran, makes one equivalent of a Qazi (a learned jurist) among the illiterate village folk; and they simply reproduce the customs and attitudes of the Arabs as an authentic version of Islam to their communities.
The Shi’a Muslims have their Imams and Marjahs (religious authorities) but it is generally assumed about Sunni Islam that it discourages the authority of the clergy. In this sense, Sunni Islam is closer to Protestantism, at least theoretically, because it prefers an individual and personal interpretation of scriptures and religion. It might be true for the educated Sunni Muslims but on a popular level of the masses of the Third World Islamic countries “the House of Saud” plays the same role in Sunni Islam that the Pope plays in Catholicism. By virtue of their physical possession of the holy places of Islam – Mecca and Medina – they are the ex officio “Caliphs of Islam.” The title of the Saudi King: “Khadim-ul-Haramain-al-Shareefain” (Servant of the House of God), makes him a vice-regent of God on Earth; and the title of “the Caliph of Islam” is not limited to a single nation state, he wields enormous influence throughout “the Commonwealth of Islam: the Muslim Ummah.”
Now, when we hear slogans like “no democracy, just Islam” on the streets of the Third World Islamic countries, one wonders that what kind of an imbecile would forgo his right to choose one’s government through a democratic and electoral process? This confusion about democracy is partly due to the fact that the masses often conflate democracy with liberalism without realizing that democracy is only a political process of choosing one’s representatives and legislators through an electoral process, while liberalism is a cultural mindset which may or may not be suitable for a backward Third World society depending on its existing level of social evolution. From an evolutionary perspective a bottom-up, gradual and incremental social change is more conducive and easily adoptable compared to a top-down, sudden and radical approach.
One feels dumbfounded, however, when even some educated Muslims argue that democracy is un-Islamic and that an ideal Islamic system of governance is Caliphate. Such an ideal Caliphate could be some Umayyad or Abbasid model that they conjure up in their minds, but in practice the only beneficiaries of such an anti-democratic approach are the illegitimate tyrants of the Arab World who claim to be the Caliphs of Islam albeit indirectly and in a nuanced manner: that is, the Servants of the House of God and the Keepers of the Holy places of Islam.
The illegitimate, and hence insecure, tyrants adopt different strategies to maintain and prolong their hold on power. They readily adopt the pragmatic advice of Machiavelli to his patrons: “Invent enemies and then slay them in order to control your subjects.” The virulently anti-Shi’a rhetoric of the Gulf-based Wahhabi-Salafi preachers, who are on the payroll of the Gulf’s petro-monarchies, appears to be a cunning divide-and-rule strategy on the lines of Machiavelli. The Arab petro-sheikhs cannot construct a positive narrative that can delineate their achievements, that’s why they espouse a negative narrative that casts the “evil Other” in a bad light.
The Sunni-Shi’a conflict is essentially a political and economic conflict which is presented to the lay Muslims in a veneer of religiosity. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest “proven” petroleum reserves, 265 billion barrels, and its daily crude oil production is 10 million barrels (equivalent to 15% of the global crude oil production.) However, 90 % of the Saudi petroleum reserves and infrastructure is situated along the Persian Gulf, but this sparsely populated region comprises the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia which has a significant and politically active Shi’a minority. Any separatist tendency in this Achilles heel of Saudi Arabia is met with sternest possible reaction. Saudi Arabia sent thousands of its own troops to help the Bahraini regime quell the Shi’a rebellion in the wake of “the Arab Spring” uprisings in the Shi’a-majority Bahrain, which is also geographically very close to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism is a threat to the Western countries but the Islamic countries are encountering a much bigger threat of inter-sectarian conflict. For centuries the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace throughout the Islamic World but now certain vested interests are deliberately stoking the fire of inter-sectarian strife to distract attention away from the Home Front: that is, the popular movements for democracy and enfranchisement in the Arab World.
Islam is regarded as the fastest growing religion of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are two factors that are primarily responsible for this atavistic phenomena of Islamic resurgence: firstly, unlike Christianity which is more idealistic, Islam is a more practical religion, it does not demands from its followers to give up worldly pleasures but only aims to regulate them; and secondly, Islam as a religion and political ideology has the world’s richest financiers. After the 1973 collective Arab oil embargo against the West in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, the price of oil quadrupled; the Arab petro-sheikhs now have so much money that they don’t know where to spend it? This is the reason why we are witnessing an exponential growth of Islamic charities and madrassas all over the world and especially in the Islamic World.
Although the Arab sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and some emirates of UAE, excluding the comparatively liberal Dubai, generally sponsor the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam but the differences between numerous sects of Sunni Islam are more nominal than substantive. The Islamic charities and madrassas belonging to all the Sunni denominations get generous funding from the Gulf Arab states as well as private donors. Therefore, the genie of petro-Islamic extremism cannot be contained until and unless that financial pipeline is cut off. And to do that we need to promote the moderate democratic forces in the Arab world even if they are moderately Islamic.
The moderate and democratic Islamism is different from the monarcho-theocratic Islamism of the Gulf variety, because the latter is an illegitimate and hence an insecure regime; to maintain its hold on power it needs subterfuges and external rivals to keep the oppositional internal threats to its survival under check. Takfirism (labelling others as infidels) and jihadism are a manifestation of this Machiavellian trend. In the nutshell, Islam is only a religion, just like any other cosmopolitan religion, be it Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism; we don’t have to find any ‘exceptionalist’ justifications to explain the phenomena of Islamic resurgence; it’s the petro-Islamic extremism and the consequent phenomena of Takfirism and jihadism, which is like a collision of the continental tectonic plates that has engulfed the whole of Islamic world from the Middle East and North Africa region to Af-Pak and Southeast Asia.
Some people are under the impression that democracy and Islam are inconsistent. But I don’t see any contradiction between democracy and Islam, as such. Though, I admit that there is some friction between Islam and liberalism. When we say that there is a contradiction between Islam and democracy, we make “a category mistake” which is a very serious logical fallacy. There is a big difference between democracy and liberalism. Democracy falls under the category of politics while liberalism falls in the category of culture. We must be precise about the definitions of the terms that we employ.
Democracy is simply a representative political system that ensures representation, accountability, the right of the electorate to vote governments in and to vote governments out. In this sense when we use the term democracy we simply mean a multi-party representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political parties in order to ensure that it is voluntary. Thus democracy is nothing more than a multi-party representative political system.
Democracy is not the best of systems because it is the most efficient political system. Top-down authoritarian dictatorships are more efficient than democracies. But democracy is a representative political system that brings about grass roots social change. Enfranchisement, representation, transparency, accountability, checks and balances, rule of law and the consequent institution-building, nation-building and consistent long-term policies are the hallmarks of a representative and democratic political system.
Immanuel Kant had famously said that moral autonomy produces moral responsibility and maturity. In my opinion this axiom also applies to politics and governance. Political autonomy, democracy and self-governance leads to political responsibility and social maturity. A top-down political system is dependent on the artificial, external force that keeps it going. The moment you remove that force, the society reverts back to its old state and the system collapses. But a grass roots, bottom-up political system evolves naturally and intrinsically. We must not expect from the movements for democracy and enfranchisement in the Arab World to produce results immediately. The evolution of the Western culture took place over a course of many centuries; the movements for political reform in the Arab World are only the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
In order to explain this phenomena by way of an allegory, democracy is like a school and people are like children. We only have two choices: one, to keep the people under paternalistic dictatorships; two, to enroll them in the school of representative democracy and let them experience democracy as a lived reality rather than some stale and sterile theory. The first option will only produce half-witted retards, but the second option will give birth to an educated human resource that doesn’t just consume resources but also creates new resources. We are on a historic juncture in the Arab World in particular and the Islamic World in general. This is the beginning of a new era; this is the beginning of the Islamic Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, blogger and geopolitical analyst who has a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy wars and Petro-imperialism.