Saudi Arabia, the mainspring of Islamic extremism

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Nouman Sadq

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

The Pakistani security establishment is rightfully blamed for creating the Taliban; but the phenomena of religious extremism and terrorism are not limited to Pakistan; this conflagration has engulfed the whole Islamic world from Iraq and Syria to Algeria and Indonesia and even the Muslim minorities in China, Thailand and Philippines. The Pakistani establishment does not have access to all these regions, thus, aside from local actors, some regional and global actors are also responsible for creating the menace of Islamic extremism and terrorism. A more holistic understanding of the problem will identify three actors responsible for creating this menace: the Pakistani security establishment; the Saudi and Gulf petro-monarchies, and last but not the least, the western support for the Afghan Jihad during the Cold War.

A July 2013 EU’s parliament report also identified the Wahabi-Salafi roots of Global Terrorism; a laudable report which ironically or rather expectedly doesn’t even make a passing reference to the role of western powers in sponsoring Islamic terrorism during the 1980s. Plausible deniability in waging proxy wars is a clever Machiavellian tactic in realpolitik, but it is also a form of “denial” which is always a part of the problem and never a part of the solution. Truth is a sine qua non in any “Truth and Reconciliation” approach. But this write-up is about the role of Saudi Arabia as the proverbial “Caliph of Islam” in promoting extremism and terrorism in the Muslim Ummah or Commonwealth.

Social selection (or social conditioning) plays the same role in social sciences which natural selection plays in biological sciences: 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 customs and values. A decentralised and unorganised religion, like Sufism, engenders diverse strains of beliefs and thoughts which compete with one another in gaining social acceptance and currency. A heavily centralised and tightly organised religion, on the other hand, depends more on authority and dogma, than value and utility. A centralised religion is also more ossified and less adaptive to change compared to a decentralised religion.

When we look at religious extremism and the consequent militancy and terrorism phenomena, in Pakistan in particular and the Islamic world in general, it is not a natural evolution of religion, some deleterious mutations have occurred somewhere which have infected the whole Islamic world. Most Pakistani political analysts blame the Pakistani security establishment for a deliberate promotion of religious extremism to create a militarist-jihadi narrative which suits the institutional interests and strategic objectives of the Pakistani military. There is no denying this obvious fact but it is only one factor in a multifactorial equation. Like I said earlier, the phenomena of religious extremism is not limited to Pakistan, the whole Islamic world from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to Indonesia, Malaysia and even the Muslim minorities of Thailand, China and Philippines are witnessing this world-wide phenomena.

When we look at religious extremism and the consequent militancy and terrorism phenomena, in Pakistan in particular and the Islamic world in general, it is not a natural evolution of religion, some deleterious mutations have occurred somewhere which have infected the whole Islamic world

In my opinion, the real culprit for the rise of religious extremism and terrorism in the Islamic world is Saudi Arabia. The Aal-e-Saud dynasty (descendants of Saud) has no hereditary claim to the Throne of Mecca since they are not the descendants of the prophet, nor even from the Quresh (there is a throne of Mecca which I’ll explain later). They were the most primitive marauding nomadic tribesmen of Najd who defeated the Sharifs of Mecca violently after the collapse of the Ottomans in the first world war. Their title to the throne of Saudi Arabia is only de facto, not de jure, since neither do they have a hereditary claim 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; which explains their heavy-handed tactics is dealing with any kind of dissent, opposition or movement for reform.

The phenomenon of religious extremism all over the Islamic world is directly linked to the Wahabi-Salafi madrassas, which are sponsored by Saudi and Gulf petrodollars. These madrassas attract children from the poorest backgrounds in third world Islamic countries because they offer the kind of incentives and facilities which even the government-sponsored public schools cannot provide: free boarding and lodging, no tuition fee at all, and free of cost books and even stationery. Aside from madrassas, another factor that promotes Wahabi-Salafi ideology in the Islamic world is the ritual of Hajj and Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina). Every year millions of Muslim men and women travel from all over the Islamic world to perform the ritual and purge their sins. When they return 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 puritanical version of Islam, which some, especially the rural-tribal folks, find attractive.

Authority plays an important role in any belief-system; the educated people accept the authority of the specialists in their respective fields of specialty; the lay folks 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 the individuals’ psyche: loyalty, purity or the concept of sacred, and originality and authenticity, as in the concept of being close to an ideal authentic model. Just like the modern naturalists who prefer organic food and natural habits and lifestyles; because of their belief in the intrinsic goodness of nature, or their disillusionment from the man-made fuss; the religious folks 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 Salafism throughout the Islamic world is the immigrant factor. Millions of Muslim men, women and families from the third world Islamic countries live and work in 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 such Gulf-based migrant workers come back to their native villages and towns, they bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and a truer version of Islam. Spending time in Arab countries entitles one to pass authoritative judgments on religious matters; and having a cursory understanding of the language of Quran (Arabic) makes one an equivalent of a Qazi (judge) among the illiterate village people. And they just reproduce the customs and attitudes of the Arabs as an authentic version of Islam to their compatriots.

Sh’ia Muslims have their Imams and Marjahs (religious authorities) but it is generally presumed about Sunni Islam that it discourages the authority of the clergy. In this sense, Sunni Islam is closer to Protestantism, theoretically, because it promotes an individualised and personal interpretation of scriptures and religion. It might be true about the Hanafis and other educated schools of thought in Islam; but on a popular level, the House of Saud plays the same role in 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 nation-state, he wields enormous influence and clout throughout the Commonwealth of Islam: the Muslim Ummah.

Now, when we hear slogan like “No democracy, just Islam” on the streets of third world Islamic countries, one wonders what kind of an imbecile would forgo his right to choose his rulers through a democratic process? It is partly due to the fact that the masses often conflate democracy with liberalism; without realising that democracy is only a political process of choosing one’s representatives and legislators through an election process; while liberalism is a cultural mindset which may or may not be practicable in a backward third world society depending on its existing stage of social development. One feels dumbfounded when even some educated Muslims argue that democracy is un-Islamic and an ideal Islamic system of governance is a caliphate. Such an ideal caliphate could be some Umayyad/Abbasid model that they conjure up in their heads; 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: the Servants of the House of God and the Keepers of the Holy places of Islam.

Saudi Arabia produces 10 million barrels of oil per day (equivalent to 15 per cent of the global oil production) and it can single-handedly bring down the oil price to $50 per barrel and it can also single-handedly quadruple the price of oil, a nightmare for the global industrialised economies

The illegitimate, hence insecure, tyrants adopt different strategies to maintain their hold on power. They heed to the pragmatic advice of Machiavelli: “Invent enemies and then slay them in order to control your subjects.” The virulently anti-Shi’a rhetoric of the Salafis and Takfiris is such a Machiavellian approach. They cannot construct a positive narrative which can specify their achievements; that’s why they construct a negative narrative that casts the Evil Other in a sinister light. The Sunni-Shi’a conflict is essentially a political conflict to dominate the Middle East region which is presented to the lay Muslim in a veneer of religiosity.

Saudi Arabia produces 10 million barrels of oil per day (equivalent to 15 per cent of the global oil production) and it can single-handedly bring down the oil price to $50 per barrel and it can also single-handedly quadruple the price of oil, a nightmare for the global industrialised economies. 90 per cent of the Saudi oil installations are 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 is met with sternest possible reaction. Saudi Arabia sent its own battalions to help Bahraini regime quell the Shi’a rebellion 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 Islamic countries are encountering a much bigger threat of inter-sectarian terrorism. For centuries Sunni and Shi’a Muslims lived peacefully side by side; but now certain vested interests are provoking inter-sectarian strife to distract attention away from the popular movements for democracy and enfranchisement throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Islam is regarded as the fastest growing religion of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are two factors responsible for this Islamic-resurgence phenomenon: one, Islam is a practical religion, it does not demand from its followers to give up worldly pleasures but only aims to regulate them; two, Islam as a religion and ideology has the world’s richest financiers. After the 1973 collective Arab oil embargo against the west in the wake of Arab-Israeli war, the price of oil quadrupled; the Arabs sheikhs now have so much money that they don’t know where to spend it. This is the reason why we see an exponential growth in 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 Dubai generally sponsor the Wahabi-Salafi brand of Islam but the difference between numerous sects of Sunni Islam are more nominal than substantive. The charities and madrassas belonging to all the Sunni sects get generous funding from the Gulf states as well as private donors. Therefore, the genie of petro-Islamic extremism cannot be contained until and unless the 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.

Moderate democratic Islamism is different from monarcho-theocratic Islamism 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 religion, we don’t have to find any ‘exceptionalist’ justifications to explain Islamic resurgence; it’s the petro-Islamic extremism and the consequent Takfirism and jihadism phenomena which are like a collision of the continental tectonic plates which has engulfed the whole Islamic world from the Middle East and North Africa to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

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