The ‘Outlook’ section of The Washington Post, its weekend collection of op-eds, has an interesting piece by Diane Muir. In it she argues that Western writers calling for a ‘Reformation’ in Islam should be cautious in what they wish. The Christian Reformation, she reminds us, was followed by two hundred years of war, violence, massacre, and repression. This was followed by the period known as the Enlightenment, when humanist values and reason gradually took the place of religious dogma as men learned more about the world around them, devaluing and replacing classical interpretations of the world. The Ptolemaic, geocentric universe was replaced by the Copernican, heliocentric universe. The ‘four temperaments or humors’ of Galen were replaced by more modern practices of experiment and observation in medicine.
Abdul Wahhab, the 18th C. interpreter of Islam in Saudi Arabia, was very much a Reformist. He, as Martin Luther, sought to remove the cultural accretions he saw debasing religion. He, as Luther, called for a return to the simplicity of faith and the inerrancy of the Quran. His views were similar to those espoused by both earlier (Ibn Taymiya) and later (Sayyed Qutb) reformists. A successful movement toward ‘Enlightenment’ has yet to arise.
This piece is certainly worth reading.
Risks in a Muslim Reformation
Salman Rushdie, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof and Mansour al-Nogaidan are among the well-intentioned people who have called for an Islamic Reformation. They should be careful what they wish for.
The Protestant Reformation did precede the things these men admire about modernity in the West, including women’s emancipation, political liberty, scientific breakthroughs, the wealth and opportunity created by the Industrial Revolution, and permission to think freely regarding God. But all this came later, and the Reformation was only part of what brought them about.
The Reformation was a time of intense focus on God and what He requires of people. As a movement, it was enthusiastic, narrow and far from tolerant. It and the Counter-Reformation brought two centuries of repression, war and massacre to the West. It’s unlikely that anyone who lived through it would consider wishing a Reformation on Muslims.
And yet, even as some hope for such a turn of events — presuming, it seems, a certain conclusion — a Reformation is sweeping through the Muslim world. Westerners are generally aware that the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam are struggling for dominance in Iraq. But more broadly, the words and doctrine promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis or Wahhabists are eerily similar to those of our 16th-century forebears.
The politically liberal magazine “The American Prospect” focuses this month’s issue on the Middle East. One article in particular caught my attention. The full text of the piece, unfortunately, is available only to subscribers. I’ve excerpted portions to give the general thrust of the piece.
For the most post, and particularly in its conclusions, I think the article is on-target. Where it goes off track is that it imputes far too much to the ‘evil Neo-Cons’. Completely missing from the article is the instant repudiation of the Muraviec attack on Saudi Arabia. I was in a very privileged position to see that repudiation as I was the Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Riyadh at the time. The Muraviec briefing hit like a thunderbolt. The official denunciation of it, starting with that of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, was widespread and loud.
That said, it is nevertheless true that there are many Americans who hold an exceptionally jaundiced view of Saudi Arabia. While there is some legitimate cause for that, I find most of it to be either a projection of ‘if I were Saudi Arabia, this is what I would do’, or a case of dislike for Saudi Arabia, particularly coming from those in the US military who, having been assigned to Saudi Arabia at some point, simply did not like what they saw. In both cases, the opinions are coming perhaps from some experience, but not a lot of it, and very little understanding of the reality of Saudi Arabia.
I think the full text of this piece is worth hunting out, whether through a subscription, buying a copy of the current issue at a newsstand, or tracking it down at a library. It’s worth reading.
Steven Simon is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Administration policy on Saudi Arabia has lurched from an excessive embrace of the regime to an ill-informed democracy campaign. How can the U.S. and the Saudis play a more constructive role?
IN JULY 2002, A RAND CORPORATION RESEARCH ANALYST named Laurent Murawiec gave a briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Defense Policy Board, a blue-ribbon group of former secretaries of defense, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an assortment of nongovernmental experts. The meeting was chaired by Richard Perle.
Murawiec was one of the itinerant peddlers of the national security world, an authority on everything and nothing. He was, however, at one with the zeitgeist. His PowerPoint presentation that day began with the conventional wisdom about the Arab world: Centuries of failure had driven Arabs to the depths of despair and the heights of envy; humiliated, with nothing to show for themselves since the golden age of medieval Islam, they had lashed out against the West.
He then focused on Saudi Arabia: The country’s rule, he said, had been usurped by Wahhabists whose mission in life was to draw blood from the West. “Saudi Arabia,” Murawiec explained, “is central to the self-destruction of the Arab world and the chief vector of the Arab crisis and its outwardly directed aggression. The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader. Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies; a daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the U.S. from Saudi media, ‘educational’ institutions, clerics, officials–Saudis tell us one thing in private, [but they] do the contrary in reality.”
Nevertheless, Murawiec said, the situation was not entirely hopeless. Although “the role assigned to the House of Saud [by the British] … has become obsolete–nefarious,” the Saudis’ position could be taken away. “There is an ‘Arabia,’” he assured his audience, “but it need not be ‘Saudi.’”
…MURAWIEC’S BIZARRE PERFORMANCE WAS IN FACT AN EXTREME expression of festering bipartisan discontent in Washington with Riyadh’s behavior as an unreliable ally. In February 1998, the United States sought to punish Saddam Hussein for impeding, then ejecting, United Nations arms inspectors. Large-scale air strikes were planned. At the last minute, or so it seemed to the State Department, the Saudis informed the Clinton administration that the air bases needed to execute the U.S. plan would not be made available. Regional public opinion about the damage inflicted on Iraqi civilians by UN sanctions, against the background of Israeli-Palestinian violence, had become too hot for the Saudis. The United States was forced to back off its threat to hit Iraq and stand aside as Kofi Annan worked out a face-saving deal with the Iraqi regime. A military divorce between Washington and Riyadh–already under way after the bombing of the U.S. Air Force housing complex in Khobar two years before–gained momentum.
Neoconservatives waiting to take power in Washington had concerns that went beyond the utility of Saudi Arabia as an aircraft carrier. Explaining the Saudis to a Congress naturally suspicious of an ally that didn’t share American values and seemed implacably opposed to Israel was difficult at best, and the neocons saw the House of Saud as doomed by the unholy bargain the ruling family was supposed to have struck with a xenophobic Wahhabist clergy. If the family tacked with the prevailing fundamentalist winds, it would grow even more untrustworthy and undependable; if it opposed the clerics, it would be overthrown by the very militants that had been dispatched from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan 10 years before to battle the Soviets. Either way, America’s investment in Saudi Arabia looked like it was going to tank. Given America’s dependence on Saudi oil, this was a dangerous situation, to say the least.
…Despite the sluggish pace of the reform process, and given the toxic jihadist propaganda permeating the region, there is little chance that the existing order will be swept away. Members of the middle class, even those now in their 20s and 30s, reject violent change. The clerics that had endorsed violence, the so-called “instigating sheikhs,” who explicitly endorsed violence recanted in 2003. And recent research shows that the “Iraq” generation of Saudi jihadists is more likely to frame its complaint as one against Christians and Jews, rather than its allegedly apostate rulers.
None of this signifies that Washington should take pressure off the Riyadh on counterterrorism, especially the control of unlicensed funds that support jihadist groups. Saudi Arabia has come a long way from the pre-9-11 breeding ground of the global jihad. The Saudis still need to ratchet back their funding of mosques and religious schools outside the kingdom.
Domestic political reform is secondary. The United States should be under no illusion that the Saudi ruling family will go much beyond existing concessions, especially in areas that concern Washington, like education and women’s rights. If educational reform could be sold as the key to job opportunities and not immunity to religious radicalism, it might be more feasible. Gender equality, however, will remain the third rail of Saudi politics.
Diplomatically, there are opportunities for a constructive Saudi role. The United States will continue to need Saudi cooperation in Lebanon. Revival of Riyadh’s 2002 peace initiative could prove valuable, too. On the other hand, the Saudis are not in a position to be helpful in the ongoing quest to block Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle. In Iraq, Saudi funding for large infrastructure projects could put Iraqis to work. But Riyadh is limited in its ability to forge a consensus among Sunni insurgents that might lead to the isolation of al-Qaeda and negotiations with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
With the loss of fevered neocon dreams of taking the “Saudi” out of “Arabia,” and the return to realpolitik, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a bit closer to where it should be. It is not, nor will it ever be, a “special relationship” grounded in shared values or common experience. Serious policy differences, especially over Israel and Iraq, are likely to persist. Political liberalization will remain important, though perhaps not decisive, when it comes to the longevity of House of Saud’s authority. As neoconservative rigidity has begun to give way to neorealism, a strong relationship with the kingdom is in America’s interest. And as Lord Palmerston said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.”
Saudi Arabia: Billboard Ad Sparks Controversy
By Halima Mazfar
Jeddah A, Asharq Awsat- A billboard ad for a Pop concert featuring contemporary Arabic artists, is in the center of a legal dispute between an advertising agency and the Saudi Ministry of Information.
The Advertising agency had put up a large billboard prompting a concert featuring Arabic singers Mohammed Abdo and Ahlam, close to a commercial center in Jeddah’s Al Tahlia Road, an area renowned for its shopping outlets and numerous adverts featuring the latest fashions trends.
Asharq Alawsat reports on a culture clash happening within Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Abdo is, arguably, the most popular Saudi singer. But music is also something strict Wahhabists believe sinful. The billboard promotion of a concert is causing heartburn, to say the least, among the Wahhabists, and they’ve enlisted the government to fight their battle. At question is the interpretation of a regulation that limits advertising for satellite TV channels and its products (Abdo is known to most Saudis through his TV appearances). The advertising agency challenges that regulation, at least because authorities inconsistently enforce it. The article makes fascinating reading about how Saudis are facing change within their own societies.
In Saudi Arabia, a Resurgence of Sufism
Mystical Sect of Islam Finds Its Voice in More Tolerant Post-9/11 Era
Faiza Saleh Ambah
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A hush came over the crowd as the young man sitting cross-legged on the floor picked up the microphone and sang, a cappella, a poem about Islam’s prophet Muhammad. His eyes shut tight, his head covered by an orange-and-white turban, he crooned with barely contained ardor of how the world rejoiced and lights filled the skies the day the prophet was born.
The men attending the mawlid — a celebration of the birth and life of Muhammad — sat on colorful rugs, rocking gently back and forth, while the women, on the upper floor watching via a large projection screen, passed around boxes of tissues and wiped tears from their eyes.
The centuries-old mawlid, a mainstay of the more spiritual and often mystic Sufi Islam, was until recently viewed as heretical and banned by Saudi Arabia’s official religious establishment, the ultraconservative Wahhabis. But a new atmosphere of increased religious tolerance has spurred a resurgence of Sufism and brought the once-underground Sufis and their rituals out in the open.
The Washington Post has a good article on how Sufism is making its way back into public view in Saudi Arabia. Repressed by extremist Wahhabists since the 1920s, it is now being recognized as a valid community within orthodox Islam. While there have been Sufis in Mecca for centuries, they tended to keep their presence quiet, flying under the radar, so to speak. I had heard of various Sufi groups meeting and praying together, particularly during the period of the Haj, when Muslims from around the world came to the city on pilgrimage. But for the rest of the year, Sufi activities were essentially underground.
With King Abdullah’s welcoming Sufis (and Shi’a) into the general Saudi society, the opportunities for greater tolerance for “the other” are greatly increased. And, as this article notes with a photograph, when such hard-line Wahhabis as Salma Al-Oudeh are meeting with the Sufis, even attending their religious services, it appears that a major wall of intolerance has been breached for good.
Who knows, but perhaps now even such major Saudi-bashers as Stephen Schwartz–who premises his views of Islam from a Sufi perspective–will find something likeable about the Saudis!
[UPDATE 05/03/06: UPI's Religion & Spirituality Forum also has a piece that offers more background on Wahhabi-Sufi frictions. It also notes that not all Sufis are satisfied with current progress.]