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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Dissecting 'Islamic' extremism: The Saudi role

How Saudi Petrodollar plays determinant role in spreading, sustaining and multiplying religious fanaticism and extremism around the globe
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By Nauman Sadiq

It has been tempting to attach the word 'Muslim' to terrorism in much of the western world. It is often forgotten, rather deliberately, that the Al Qaeda and Taliban are but a fringe elements in the Muslim world. The narrative which places the entire Muslim population as a potential if not present day threats to the security of the others has given rise to a dangerous form of Islamophobia in many parts of the world.

So what is the so called Islamic extremism and terrorism? How was it borne and how is it sustained in today's world? What were and are the geopolitical realities-- though downplayed by the mainstream media in the world-- that decide the trajectory of forces like Taliban and Al Qaeda? To be frank, the people all over world have been more misinformed than informed on these issues by the mainstream media. In this highly insightful piece, Nauman Sadiq pointedly explains how the state of Saudi Arabia has been at the center of extremism and fanaticism that goes in the name of Islam. This post, also carried by Asia Times Online earlier this week, is his first in this blog and was taken from the author's blog with his permission.

Social selection plays the same role in the social sciences which the natural selection plays in the 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 decentralized and unorganized religion, like Sufism, engenders diverse strains of beliefs and thoughts which compete with one another in gaining social acceptance and currency. A heavily centralized and tightly organized religion, on the other hand, depends more on authority and dogma, than value and utility. A centralized religion is also more ossified and less adaptive compared to a decentralized religion.

When we look at religious extremism and the consequent militancy and terrorism, in Pakistan in particular and the Islamic world in general, it is not a natural evolution of religion, some deleterious mutation have occurred somewhere which has infected the whole of Islamic world. Most Pakistani political scientists blame the Pakistani military establishment for a deliberate promotion of religious extremism to create a 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 of Islamic world from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria to Indonesia, Malaysia and even the Muslim minorities of Thailand, China and Philippines are witnessing this phenomena.

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 (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 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 phenomena of religious extremism all over the Islamic world is directly linked to the Wahabi-Salafi madrassahs which are sponsored by the Saudi and Gulf petrodollars. These madrassahs attract children from the most poorest 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: free boarding and lodging, no tuition fee at all, and free of cost books and even stationery. Aside from madrassahs, 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 wash 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 thought 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 a 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 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 immigrants 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 they come back to their native villages and towns, they bring along an Ox-bridge degree and an attractive English accent. Not literally but figuratively. Spending time in Arab countries entitles one to pass authoritative judgments on religious matters; and having a cursory understanding of the language of Quran makes you 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.

The Shia Muslims have their Imams and Marjahs (religious authorities) but it is generally believed about the Sunni Islam that it discourages the authority of the clergy. In this sense, Sunni Islam is closer to Protestantism, theoretically, because it promotes an individual and personal interpretation of scriptures and religion. It might be true about the Hanafies 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 ruler through a democratic process? It 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 election process; while liberalism is a cultural mindset which may or may not be suitable in a native third world society depending on its existing level of social progress in an evolutionary perspective; which prefers a bottom-up, gradual and incremental changes over a top-down, sudden and radical approach. But 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.

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-Shia 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 negative light. The Sunni-Shia conflict is essentially a political and economic conflict which is presented to the lay Muslim in a veneer of religiosity. Saudi Arabia produces 10 to 15 million barrels of oil per day (equivalent to 15 to 20 % of the global oil production) it can single-handedly bring down the oil price to $ 50 per barrel and it can also single-handedly raise the oil price to $ 200 per barrel, a nightmare for the global industrialized economies. 90 % 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 Shia majority. 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 Shia rebellion in the Shia-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 terrorism. For centuries the Sunni and Shia 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 throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The ultimate goal of the Arab Spring is to overthrow the illegitimate House of Saud and this tide will not subside until its objective is achieved. There are ebbs and flows in any grass-roots political and social movement; it ebbed in Egypt but it will rise again to flood the whole of MENA region. What’s unfortunate is the fact, that the so-called champions of democracy can’t even lend a moral support, let alone the material support; because their interests always outweigh their principles and ideals.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney who blogs at http://naumansadiq.blogspot.com.

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