Archive for the ‘Saudi Arabia’ Category
This review was first published at the Guardian.
“Surely” – a desperate character muses on his way to court – “there were a thousand other men like him who’d made mistakes enough to ruin their lives, their careers and their families, and yet surely those men had carried on, as had their families. There was room for everything in this vast, disordered place.”
The place is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, depicted by celebrated crime writer Zoe Ferraris with sympathy and realism, and in all its complexity: through its text messages and mobiles, SUVs and shopping malls, its exorcist surgeries and women-only banks, plus the “forced meditation” of compulsory prayer. And the harsh worlds inhabited by immigrant workers. Migrant workers, female and male, constitute perhaps a third of the Saudi population, and they give this novel – Kingdom of Strangers – its title.
To start with, nineteen bodies are found in the desert. The carefully mutilated victims are immigrant women, Asians, and their corpes are arranged to convey a hidden message.
Enter Chief Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani, whose repertoire includes policeman’s intuition and Beduin trackers as well as forensic analysts and an American expert on serial killers.
Ibrahim is a liberal in his context, a rationalist, but he’s not squeamish, in his moments of pain, about applying violence to the deserving. His quiet suffering and basic decency would make him a figure of genuine tragedy if the plot didn’t rather unconvincingly spirit him out of danger at the close.
Here’s today’s Guardian article in its pre-sub-edited form.
Last January Syria seemed, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, to be amongst the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashaar al-Asad had run in a real election, he may well have won.
It’s difficult remembering it today: most Syrians did grudgingly credit the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It’s that keen desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, which keeps a section of Syrians fiercely loyal to the regime even now.
To start with, although they were inspired by revolutions in Tunisa and Egypt, most protestors didn’t aim for regime change. The first demonstration – in the commercial heart of Damascus – was a response to police brutality. That one ended peacefully, but when Dera’a protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets, and met greater violence, which swelled the crowds further. A vicious circle began to spin. All the intelligence, and the nationalist pretensions, peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.
Following the surprise visit of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Bahrain, home of the American Fifth Fleet, tanks and troops of the Saud family dictatorship have crossed the causeway and are now occupying Manama. The film below shows Bahraini police tactics against unarmed protestors before the Wahhabi goons were called in. Meanwhile, the Khalifa regime is urgently recruiting more mercenaries.
This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.
A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.
Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.
The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.
A slightly different version of this review was written for Prospect Magazine, where it was available free-of-charge for a while, but no longer.
The contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.
“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.
Al-Ahram Weekly, the English language twin of the Arabic daily, is an Egyptian state organ. The Weekly has a broader range of opinion than the tame daily, and does often contain interesting articles. The great Palestinian thinker Azmi Bishara, for instance, can be found in the Weekly. Unfortunately, however, Egyptian regime nonsense concerning the Persian-Shia ‘threat’ is also fed into the mix. This article by Galal Nassar is a sad example. Below is my response to his piece:
Dear Mr Nassar
I am not a Shia Muslim. If I were, I would not be a supporter of the velayat-e-faqih system. I agree with you entirely that the velayat-e-faqih concept is a perversion of traditional Shia ideas. I also agree that velayat-e-faqih leads to authoritarian government, to the detriment of Iranian society.
If it is authoritarianism that bothers you, however, I wonder why you single out Iran, which is at least a semi-democracy. The dictatorship in Egypt seems a much better target, especially after the mass arrests of recent weeks. Another good target is the barbaric dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. As a Sunni Muslim, I am outraged by the Wahhabi perversion of Islam that holds sway in that country.
I apologise from my absence. I’ve been very busy. I’ll be back soon, but for now I’ll post something from Conflicts Forum. I’ll post it because it clarifies the already clear truth that Salafism, whether the Salafis know it or not, has an inherent opposition to genuine resistance in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Below you’ll read about the marriage of Wahhabi nihilism and Arab fascism, and how its purpose is to deepen the Empire’s control by encouraging the people to hate each other. And there is further clarification of how very unlike this twisting, thrusting couple (Mr. Salafi and Mr. Fascist – it’s a same-sex partnership) are organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas.
The honeymoon after the wedding was remarkable for its dog-gnawed corpses, and for the smiles on the faces of fat businessmen and kings.
(I recommend Conflicts Forum’s intelligent and detailed articles. The three-part report on how Hizbullah defeated Israel in 2006 is fascinating.)
Osama bin Laden squeezed his face back onto our screens at the start of Ramadan. This time, probably advised by his American follower Adam Gadahn, he tailored his discourse to a Western audience, and tainted by association the good names of Noam Chomsky and the anti-globalisation movement. Before Ramadan ends, let me talk briefly about bin Laden and those associated with him.
Still when bin Laden’s name is mentioned in many parts of the Arab world, although less so than a couple of years ago, a cheer goes up. Let’s hope that Martin Amis never reads this; he would see it as proof of his thesis that all Muslims are Wahhabi-nihilists. But cheering for bin Laden is like waving a flag or, more accurately, waving two fingers. It doesn’t mean that the cheering people would like to be ruled by bin Laden or that they subscribe to his programme, as they admit when questioned. Many of these ‘supporters’ would be killed if bin Laden could get his hands on them, either for being ‘heretics’ – like my Ibadhi Muslim students here in Oman – or for being ‘apostates’ – like the men in a bar in Aleppo in the following anecdote. These drinkers were well into their third or fourth bottle of araq when bin Laden came on the TV screen. “I swear by almighty God,” said Osama, his finger wagging, “that the Americans will not sleep soundly in their beds until the children of Palestine sleep soundly in theirs!” Immediately the men surged to their feet and held their glasses towards the TV image. “Kassak!” they roared – which means “Your glass!” or “Cheers!”
This story says it all. Beyond the tiny hardcore of Wahhabi-nihilists, bin Laden won sympathy in the Arab world because the Arabs will support anyone who talks tough against America and Israel. This is a symptom of the frustration and impotence felt by the Arabs, and the utter failure of their leaders to stand against Zionist and imperialist oppression in the region. Cheering for bin Laden is the equivalent of the protest vote. And inasmuch as al-Qa’ida targets America, the victim does not behave in a way designed to win sympathy. Before they had time to consider the implications of the September 11th attacks, many Arabs were impressed that this superpower which routinely trashed Muslim cities could be so dramatically humiliated. Central New York looked like Baghdad or Gaza, and to many that was an understandable cause for celebration. People in China and Latin America also celebrated September 11th. I’ve even heard – from a friend who was living in California at the time – that some Black and Hispanic Americans were gleeful about the attacks.
My children have a Dreamworks animated film called AntZ. I suppose it’s better than the average American children’s film, but still, once you’ve watched 15 minutes you can predict both the conclusion and the moral message that will be rammed violently past your gullet for the next hour and a bit. As in very many Disney films for children or in the Hollywood versions for adults, the message is BE YOURSELF. BE AN INDIVIDUAL. STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD.
It seems contradictory that the country which feeds its children unto obesity with this message is also the country with the most conformist of populations. Americans are more likely than any other people to confuse their national identity with their state machinery, to identify themselves with their leaders and their flag, to believe that their country has a divinely-ordained manifest destiny. The ability of Americans to contemplate alternative perspectives on the world, or even to understand that people in different countries may not want to speak English or eat hamburgers, is severely limited. The declared ideology is individualism, but the reality is rigid conformism.
The Arabs and Muslims have many internal enemies. But the greatest of these, in my opinion, are the Saudi regime – America’s key Arab ally – and the Wahhabi doctrine it has at different times promoted, exploited and tolerated. Its malign influence has spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Egypt and inner-city Europe, where traditional and plural Islamic cultures are being crushed by reductive ‘rulebook’ religion and sectarian intolerance. The Saudis are currently interfering in Lebanon to prop up the Siniora government, funding and providing manpower for Sunni terror organisations in Iraq, and discussing attacks on Iran with the Israelis.
Despite being the chief sponsor of the Taliban and the homeland of most of the September 11th bombers, Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States remains strong. American miltary bases remain dotted around the country, secret police continue to cow people into suspicious silence, criminals (but not the big ones) are still beheaded in public squares on Friday afternoons.
How long will this traitorous and barbaric regime last? In ‘The Rise and Coming Fall of the House of Saud’ Saeed Aburish predicted the regime’s downfall – for the late 1990s. When I was in Saudi Arabia, from 2001 to 2003, there was a widespread sense that the regime was in its last days. Al-Saud governance – rigidly Islamist at home, supinely pro-imperialist in its foreign relations – satisfied no-one at all, from Taliban types to Western-educated shabab who wanted more personal freedoms.
One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.
Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.
Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.