Friday, March 20, 2015

Fighting extremism with extremism

Saudi Arabia's ideological tangle

By Brian Whitaker

Saudi cleric Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari explains why the Earth doesn't rotate.

Sweden's cancellation of its military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds has triggered a Saudi propaganda offensive which seems to rely more on its loudness than the strength of its arguments.
In the kingdom's response, three arguments in particular stand out:
1. Sweden abuses human rights; Saudi Arabia respects them because its system is based on sharia.
2. Criticism of Saudi Arabia is a symptom of growing Islamophobia in the west.
3. In any case, what happens in Saudi Arabia is no one else's business.
Without going into detail about what is wrong with these arguments it should be obvious that even in Saudi terms they are bad propaganda. They are unlikely to change anyone's opinion and – worse – they show that in order to defend itself the kingdom is scraping the barrel.
The idea that uttering the magic word "sharia" provides an unanswerable defence to accusations of human rights abuse is especially dangerous because al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc, make exactly the same claim. And it's not just in the Saudi media; at an official level the foreign ministry has used it too:
"The Kingdom does not accept at all any attack on her in the name of human rights, especially when its constitution is based on Islamic law, which guarantees the rights of [the] human and preserved his blood, money, honour and dignity."
This points to the ideological problem at the heart of the Saudi system which is slowly but inexorably building into an existential crisis: how can the kingdom differentiate itself from groups like ISIS, and combat them, when its policies are so similar?
The government seems to be aware of this contradiction but has no idea how to deal with it. In fact, there is no way of dealing with it short of a radical overhaul that could easily bring down the monarchy.
A conference on combating "extremism" held in Saudi Arabia last month attended by hundreds of Islamic scholars and researchers illustrates the ideological tangle – as does the discriminatory way the conference was organised. 
It was held under the auspices of the Muslim World League (established in the 1960s by the Saudi monarchy to combat leftism) and, as the New York Times noted, it took place in Mecca, where non-Muslims are excluded, and no women were present or, for that matter, any members of the Shia community who make up 15% of the Saudi population.
Although there was some talk of tackling poverty and reforming education, the main message from the conference was a call for more religion, according to the New York Times report: 
"Apply Islamic Shariah in all life's affairs," they recommended, referring to Islamic law, which they said had the capacity to "accomplish justice, maintain dignity, uphold rights and meet the aspirations of the people".
The NYT report continues:
"The conference itself highlighted the contradiction at the heart of the Saudi effort: Amid worthwhile talk of outreach to youth and fighting corruption, there was almost no mention of the Saudi monarchy’s decades-long role in aggressively spreading its strictly conservative religious ideology — a creed that itself has provided inspiration for leaders of the Islamic State ...
"Arab leaders have vigorously condemned the Islamic State and some, like Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have reacted by vowing to restore moderation to religious discourse and thought. But the denunciations by the region’s autocrats and monarchs have rarely been accompanied by deeper self-criticism about the role played by state policies in fuelling radicalism, according to analysts.
"Saudi Arabia provided just one of the region’s discredited yet resilient models, 'a weird mix of authoritarian repression and religious legitimation that reinforces groups like the Islamic State,' said Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and a fellow at Chatham House."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 20 March 2015  

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