Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

A brief guide to the ideological roots of Islamic terrorism

Posted by sanityinjection on August 21, 2017

It is hard for most Westerners to understand how Islamic terrorism fits into the spectrum of Muslim theology. We are told, accurately, that terrorist fasadis like ISIS and al-Qaeda represent a fringe extremist view that most Muslims disavow. But where does this view come from, and what has caused it to become more popular and prominent over the last few decades?

First, let’s recall that most of the Muslim world is divided between the two major dominations, Sunni and Shi’a. (There are other minority sects that don’t fall into either category, but their influence on politics is minimal.) The Shi’ites are fewer in number and their political power is mostly restricted to Iraq and Iran. Most Muslim countries, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, are predominantly Sunni.

Within Sunni Islam, there is also quite a bit of variation in views on both religious and political matters. The particular strain of thought that today’s terrorist groups generally arise from is called Salafism, and it began as a reform movement over two centuries ago. Salafism is essentially a form of Islamic fundamentalism, which holds that the oldest forms of Islam practiced by Muhammad and his immediate successors are the most pure, and any modifications that have occurred within Islam since that time are errors that should be corrected.

It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in Salafism that requires political involvement or necessarily endorses violence. The first Salafists were mostly concerned with stamping out what they saw as idolatrous veneration of Islamic saints and places of worship. (ISIS’ habit of destroying historic monuments is an extreme manifestation of this viewpoint.) There are many Salafis who advocate staying out of politics, and many politically activist Salafis who do not condone violence. But this is the larger ideological context that most violent Sunni groups fit into.

Salafism as a political force first came into its own in Arabia, when the founder of a sect called Wahhabism made an alliance with the tribe of ibn Saud. The Wahhabis agreed to support the Saudis politically, and the Saudis agreed to promote Wahhabism as the correct form of Islam. The Saudis kept that bargain, and when they became masters of most of Arabia after World War I, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and subsequently became rich from Arabia’s oil, they began to have a major influence on the Islamic world. Saudi oil money paid for mosques, Islamic schools and charities, all of which dutifully spread the Wahhabi version of Salafism. Conservative even among the fundamentalist world of Salafism, Wahhabism is responsible for the many cultural restrictions on dress, music, and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and the fact that slavery wasn’t abolished there until the 1960s. The terrorist groups’ adoption of these cultural restrictions can be traced directly to the Saudi-funded schools and mosques where they were educated.

However, the real shift occurred with the victory of Islamic groups over the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989. This effort was heavily backed by Saudi money and many of the jihadis who fought there espoused Wahhabi beliefs. The lesson was that violent jihad against the enemies of Islam was not only appropriate, but could be successful. The prestige of Wahhabism, previously viewed among the Muslim world as more of an Arabian oddity, increased dramatically.

A final group that must be mentioned is the Muslim Brotherhood. Based in Egypt, the Brotherhood is an international coalition of political Islamists, generally Sunnis but not tied to any particular orientation, instead stressing the need for Muslim unity. The Muslim Brotherhood is devoted to the goal of establishing Islamic government and sharia law, by democratic means if possible. However, they have at times engaged in violence. (The US continues to debate whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as Russia and Saudi Arabia have done; many experts argue this would be neither accurate nor helpful.) The Muslim Brotherhood has specifically disavowed any support for ISIS or al-Qaeda, but it was a Brotherhood leader, Sayyid Qutb, whose anti-secular, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic writings influenced the founders of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Saudi Arabia was once a supporter of the Brotherhood, but they fell out as a result of the Gulf War and now are confirmed enemies. However, both the Saudis and the Brotherhood now find themselves unhappily dealing with the fallout of these terrorist groups they helped to inspire. (Ironically, within the past year the Saudi monarchy has been moving to liberalize Wahhabi cultural restrictions, both to improve the country’s image and to try to curb the power of Wahhabi clerics and reduce potential support for jihadi groups within the Kingdom.)

To sum up: Today’s terrorist groups were birthed in the 1990s amid a soup of Saudi-financed Wahhabi fundamentalism and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamist politics, and inspired by the success of violent jihad in Afghanistan.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Middle East Update – Qatar, Iran and terrorism

Posted by sanityinjection on June 9, 2017

I find that it’s rather difficult for those of us in the US to find quality, up-to-date analysis of what is going on in the Middle East. As it has for thousands of years, what happens in this region disproportionately affects the rest of the world. So I’m going to try to post periodic updates summarizing what you need to know with my own analysis.

SAUDI – QATAR SPAT: Perhaps the biggest story this week was the intra-Arab diplomatic spat between the small but wealthy Persian Gulf state of Qatar and a group of countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. These countries not only have suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar but have cut off land and air travel access and ordered Qataris to leave their territory. This creates a serious problem for Qatar since they import most of their food from these countries and will now have to rely on Iran and Turkey for help. The seriousness of the Saudi-led group’s intentions can be understood from the fact that the Saudis will also suffer from the diplomatic break: Qatar supplies natural gas for the Saudis and other countries in the region, and the Qataris have been kicked out of the coalition military forces fighting the Houthis in Yemen. That war is not going well for the Saudis, so you can tell they are pretty pissed if they are willing to weaken their forces there over this dispute. So what is really going on?

Basically, Saudi Arabia and the other states believe that Qatar is not only too soft on Iran, but too cozy with Islamist groups like Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Shiite groups in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Qatari media outlet Al-Jazeera has been a long time thorn in the side of the other Arab monarchies. But the last straw came recently when Qatar paid ransom money to both Iran and al-Qaeda, which of course will be used to fund more terrorism in the region.

Ultimately, the dispute amounts to an inconvenience for the US, whose military Central Command is based in Qatar. But if the Arabs are successful in pressuring Qatar to move away from it support for Iran and other groups, that could be a positive development from the US perspective. There are reports that a minor exodus of Hamas operatives leaving Qatar has already begun.

TERROR ATTACKS IN IRAN: Also this week, the Iranian capital of Tehran became the latest victim of terrorist attacks. The timing is somewhat suspicious, coming in the wake of the Saudi media campaign linking Iran with Islamic terrorism. What better way to prove that Iran is not in bed with Sunni groups like IS and al-Qaeda than for it to be attacked by them? I’m not going so far as to claim that Iran staged the attacks as a false flag operation on their own people, but I wouldn’t put it past the terrorists to have expedited plans to attack Shiite Iran (whom they view as heretics, in many ways worse than infidels) as a way of trying to counter the Saudi propaganda effort. It’s worth noting that these attacks are the first major terrorist attacks in Iran in over 25 years.

BATTLE OF RAQQA: In Syria, US-backed coalition forces have begun their assault on the IS capital of Raqqa, even as progress continues to be made in driving them out of their other stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. Most analysts expect these campaigns to be successful in essentially ending IS as a “caliphate” or territorial power in Syria and Iraq. However, IS-affiliated groups continue to operate freely in places like Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, so the threat of terrorist attacks is far from over.

PALESTINIANS CARE MORE ABOUT JOBS AND DEMOCRACY THAN FIGHTING ISRAEL: A poll conducted last month of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza produced surprising results suggesting that public opinion among Palestinians may be more open to compromises for peace than the Palestinian leadership would like to admit. Basically, the results showed that Palestinians are more interested in being able to find good jobs and having an honest, responsible government than about issues like whether the US moves its embassy to Jerusalem. From Israel, Palestinians most want freedom of movement and more job opportunities from Israeli companies more than they care about Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Perhaps most astonishingly, 62% of Palestinians in Gaza agreed that Hamas should quit calling for Israel’s destruction and accept the idea of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

These poll results may provide some ammunition for US efforts to broker a new agreement, by calling into serious question the claims of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that they would face a popular backlash if they compromised with Israel on their positions.

For more info on these and other Middle East developments, I recommend the Washington-based Al Monitor website. You can find there up-to-date reports from each of the regions within the Middle East as well as some of the most insightful and objective analysis to better understand what is really going on underneath the spin.

Posted in Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Saudi Arabia: Not even the pretense of “separate but equal”

Posted by sanityinjection on January 20, 2010

OK, get ready, because this is going to be the most feminist column I have ever, or probably will ever write 🙂

The catalyst is the recent decision of Saudi authorities to shut down a fitness center for women in the city of Jeddah. Readers will recall that in the extremely conservative Saudi society, strict segregation of the genders (except for family members) is seriously enforced. However, that alone is not even the problem. Most Saudi women would be happy with “separate but equal” accommodations, as both men and women believe this to be part of their Muslim faith (though millions of Muslims worldwide would disagree.)

In fact, however, segregation is used as an excuse to severely circumscribe women’s lives to an extent far beyond what blacks in America’s Jim Crow South ever experienced. Women are legally forbidden from driving, for example, because doing so would inevitably cause them to have to interact with men (at gas stations, for example.) Now the closure of the Jeddah fitness center and others in the conservative kingdom – despite warnings from health officials about the level of fitness among Saudi women – proves that the discrimination against women goes far beyond the desire for Islamic segregation. Since the gym in question was for women only, with no co-ed facilities, what could have motivated its closing?

The answer is simple: The gym would have been a place where Saudi women from different families could meet and talk with one another outside of male supervision. This is a frightening prospect to the Saudi patriarchy, which believes that every aspect of women’s lives needs to be controlled by men. The Saudi men – encouraged by their male imams – believe that their women are fundamentally immoral and will descend rapidly into sin if not kept in check by men. This idea is rooted not so much in Islam but in a much older tribal culture. As such, it is indefensible in the 21st century.

There is little that we in the West can do other than to speak up and consistently promote the idea of women as full citizens with equal rights in every area. And not to tolerate any suggestion of “different cultural standards” as an excuse for the Saudi brand of discrimination. Cultural values should be respected in matters such as standards of dress and public behavior, but not where the fundamental rights of speech, faith, and assembly are concerned.

Posted in Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Here are the keys to the car, Princess

Posted by sanityinjection on February 9, 2009

Saudi Princess Amira al-Taweel has come out in favor of changing the kingdom’s laws to allow women to drive cars. al-Taweel is the latest in a series of royal Saudi princesses who have advocated this reform, although she carefully chooses passive language to avoid stepping out of the shadow of her husband (who also supports the reform.)

As the princess’ remarks reveal, the driving ban effectively acts to discriminate against poorer women. Wealthy wives such as al-Taweel can learn to drive on their private estates and can drive cars on their visits abroad, while poorer women never have the opportunity to learn. A woman faced with an emergency situation such as a critically ill husband cannot legally drive him to a hospital without fear of being pulled over by the authorities.

While Saudi authorities have always justified the ban based on the need to preserve morality in the kingdom, most Muslim countries do not have similar bans.

Here is a photo of Princess Amira:

To quote the Beatles: Baby, you can drive my car!

Posted in Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Should we believe in the Saudi religious reconciliation conference?

Posted by sanityinjection on July 16, 2008

Representatives of the world’s major religions are gathering in Spain this week for an interfaith conference sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The conference is unusual because it is an effort by Arab Muslims to reach out to other faiths to ostensibly promote tolerance and moderation and reject extremism (such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.) The media is making much of the fact that even Jewish rabbis were invited and are attending the conference. This follows an unprecedented meeting earlier this year between Abdullah and Pope Benedict.

However, critics point out that Saudi Arabia itself has been both the ideological and financial birthplace of modern Islamic extremism. There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia – in fact it is illegal to practice or promote any faith other than Islam. The reason the conference is being held in Spain is to avoid having to allow so many infidels into the Holy Kingdom. The Saudi Royal family has been intimately bonded with the conservative Wahhabi religious movement since they were nothing but tribal rulers of an insignificant desert village hundreds of years ago. The Wahhabis have preached hatred for non-Muslims and those Muslims they view as heretics such as the Shiites.

Given all this, should this conference be viewed as merely a publicity stunt to improve the Saudi kingdom’s PR? Or does King Abdullah sincerely want to promote understanding between faiths? The answer, I think, is both. King Abdullah is over 80 years old and does not have many years left. There is no doubt that he wants to leave his successor a stable and prosperous kingdom. Although external criticism of Saudi Arabia focuses on its strict Islamic laws, opposition to the regime inside Saudi Arabia tends to come from the other side of the spectrum – the radical elements of the Wahhabi sect and others like Al Qaeda who view the royals as corrupt and degenerate. Therefore, Abdullah and his family have a good reason to want to combat religious extremism, at least in the form of militant groups such as Al Qaeda that are willing to act against Muslim states. Further, Abdullah is well aware of how his country has been viewed by a substantial portion of Western public opinion since it was learned that Bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. The Saudi regime depends totally on oil revenue, much of which comes from the West, and associated investments in Western countries, as well as on the military protection of the United States. Thus, the regime needs to maintain goodwill in the West.

All of this makes now a good time for a Saudi “peace offensive”. Nothing of substance will come of this conference, but I would expect the Saudis to continue to position themselves as the moderate friend of the West in the Middle East while maintaining their strict religious puritanical laws and repression of other faiths at home. Abdullah is sincere in wanting a world where religions get along, but only in the sense of minding their own business and not meddling in each others’ affairs, rather than in promoting religious freedom or toleration.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Religion | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »