KSA is a paradox, they are simultaneously among our best friends and most useful whipping boys. The Saudi family is considerably more enlightened than most Americans realize. They are hobbled by centuries of vendettas, and their ruling status is constantly in jeopardy due to the history of their rise to power by murder and intimidation. The Saudis made a Faustian bargain in their rise to power, they signed on with the Ikhwan, who we know generally as the Wahhabi/Salafi sect, though this statement is enough of a simplistic conflation to be wrong. The situation is far more complex than mere Wahhabism, much more on this point later. The Saudi royals cannot change quickly: any relaxation of their chokehold on power would produce instant chaos, both internally and on the world oil markets.
For all their money and PR firms, KSA has done a wretched job of explaining itself to the world at large. The USA blundered into Iraq, in pursuit of Saddam Hussein and WMDs. The Saudis blundered into their own War on Terror, tolerating the Ikhwan, the muttawa'in, funding jihadis all over the world. All Liberals agree Bush is stupid to believe he can import democracy into Iraq, hundreds of thousands will be dead before all is said and done in Iraq. Iran is equally stupid, supporting the Hizb'allah. Eventually, the stupidity must stop somewhere: let it begin with us.
To any believing Muslims, especially Saudis who may read this: I attempt only to present a cursory view of the problems and potential solutions. I respect Islam, the Qu'ran and The Prophet (saw), and my statements about KSA and its rulers must not be interpreted as either defense or condemnation of any maddhab. Nor am I presenting the House of Saud as some font of wisdom: they aren't, but some of them are wise and all of them are shrewd. This diary is grossly insufficent, I freely admit its shortcomings, yet in my own way, I hope to inform Progressive Democrats of what may be done within the realm of the possible.
The USA cannot change KSA from the outside. After Gulf War One, the USA strongarmed the equally undemocratic Kuwaiti regime into some semblance of a parliament, the resulting elections put Islamic hard-liners on the council. The plan backfired badly, Kuwait has become more, not less conservative. The Saudis are quietly but desperately searching for answers, I cannot overemphasize, the Saudis are not fools, and their problems are our problems by proxy. The Saudi royals, bad as they might seem to us from the outside, are among our sincerest allies.
To make sense of our relationship with the Saudis, one must start with the Saudi view of themselves: they are the Guardians of Mecca and Medina. Through their doors pass all the Muslims of the world, at one time or another. The Saudis have an uneasy relationship with the Salafi religious authorities who manage the religious side of things and the hajji pilgrims, a gargantuan task, fraught with logistical problems. The Hajj is a security nightmare, and seldom does a Hajj go by where dozens of pilgrims aren't crushed in a stampede, or some riot doesn't break out. May I add in passing, the Shii of Iraq are faced with just such a problem as well, all the pilgrims to Najaf and Karbala must now be managed.
In the past, the Hashemite Kingdom held Mecca and Medina. The rivalry between the Hashemite and Saudi kingdoms is very ancient. To understand the problem requires a lengthy discursion into the feuds, alliances and sects of Arabia. I will return to what may be done in our day.
Some vocabulary. Try not to use the term wahhabi overmuch, it's only used by their enemies now, and not all of the Salafi are ignorant terrorists, though their muttawa'in religious police are truly obnoxious. The Salafi prefer to be called Ikhwan, more on this term later, I use it as a reserved word. Surprisingly few Saudi citizens are Salafi, themselves.
More vocabulary. I will use the word Ikhwan to describe the military and religious authority side of this sect, and Salafi to describe the overall sect. My use of the word Islam implies both the formal religion and the societies which espouse it, for there is no separating the two.
The Saudis were propelled from a tiny despotism in the poorest corner of the Middle East to a major world power in a matter of months. Not years, months, in 1938. That KSA did not self-destruct in the transition is a minor political miracle. Other regimes such as Nigeria, with a far longer tradition of representative government did self-destruct in becoming an oil-rich nation. To multiply the miracle, the Saudi royals remain in a defensive posture inside their own country to this day. If a family named Rodriguez conquered Mexico, would we call it Rodriguez Mexico? We call it Saudi Arabia, though there are a dozen major clans within it, the Saudis being only one such clan. In modern terms, KSA is a family-owned business, with more than 7,000 CEOs, all on the payroll, while the competition extorts money to attenuate ancient feuds. Not a terribly efficent mechanism with which to effect reforms.
Who are these Salafi? Why are they perceived to be such a threat to both the world at large and to the Saudis themselves? Why can't the Saudis just get rid of them, and subjugate them?
I have said the Saudis murdered their way to power in a far-flung corner of the Ottoman Empire. Ibn Saud, the father of modern Saudi Arabia, was actively hunted by the Rashidi clan, who conquered their land and drove Ibn Saud into exile in Kuwait as a little boy. In the courts of Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, Ibn Saud grew to manhood and sharpened his sword all the while. Ibn Saud became a intrepid leader and caravan raider, and began revenging himself on the Rashidi clan with admirable pluck and tenacity, culminating in the audacious murder of the Rashidi mayor of Riyadh in 1902. This attracted the attention of the Ottomans, well, mostly it was the Rashidis whining to the Ottoman Authorities. The Ottoman Turks stupidly took the side of the inept Rashidis. Ibn Saud took a few hits, retreated into the sand, and picked off Ottoman convoys as they came into striking distance, Ibn Saud was by far the most effective highwayman and hitman of his day. Disgusted and enraged, the Ottomans abandoned the Rashidis to their fates in that flypecked wilderness, and Ibn Saud cheerfully completed his campaign against the Rashidis.
The year was 1912. Ibn Saud was under no illusions, he had just murdered his way back into power, and had accumulated some powerful enemies along the way, not least of which was the Ottoman Empire. Ibn Saud used the only cement he knew to glue his fractious clan together, he created a body of political enforcers, the fanatical Ikhwan. The Ikhwan would prove the Devil's Bargain, The Salafi sect had been protected by the House of Saud, after its founder had been ejected from everywhere else. In the remote and desolate backwater of Riyadh, Ibn Saud called in his chits with the Ikhwan, an act of far-reaching consequences. The Salafi enforcers never considered themselves subordinate to Ibn Saud, and Ibn Saud would later purge the Ikhwan with his own version of the Night of the Long Knives in 1929. To this day, the Salafi call themselves Ikhwan, the Brothers. The still-rebellious survivors of Ibn Saud's purges would go on to become the Islamic Brotherhood.
Anyone may google up the history of Salafi theology, but I will attempt to put my own spin on things. The Salafi are a much-hated minority within Islam, who reject the vast majority of historical Islamic doctrine and teaching. Imagine a sect of Judaism sprang up which rejected the Talmud, going so far as to call other Jews heretics. Even the most orthodox of Jews would rebel against such a sect, and without exception, the Sunni and especially the Shii communities have rejected them, issuing dire fatwas against the Salafi and their teachings. In fairness to the Salafis, (and nobody is, these days), I will utter a few words on their behalf: the Salafis have expelled Osama bin Ladin, and the Saudi royals have viciously cracked down on those who pervert the Islamic notion of jihad into attacks on the state. On a theological level, the Salafi reject all the encrustations and complexities of the madhaahib (denominations) within Islam. Consider: Thomas Jefferson constructed his little subset of the Bible from the stories and words of Jesus Christ, throwing away everything else, and a copy is now given to every member of Congress. The Salafi reject everything but what The Prophet (saw) said and did, and it is by far the simplest and most direct form of Islam imaginable. It is truly unfortunate the Salafi choose to condemn other Muslims.
Salafis differ among themselves about the efficacy of violence and the nature of jihad. There is a doctrine in Islam, fitna, which has come to mean one Muslim may not disparage another Muslim's faith, causing strife. Yet the Qu'ran states unequivocally, So fight them until there is no more Fitnah and all submit to the religion of Allah alone.. Who are the Muslims to fight? Other Muslims? Or merely the Unbelievers? And what is the nature of this fight? I leave the answer to faithful Muslims to decide in their own hearts, Allah (swt) will guide them. I cannot conceive of any true doctrine which pits one Muslim against another, it is fitna. Allah is above all Merciful and Beyond All Understanding.
The Salafis and the House of Saud are inextricably linked. The House of Saud gave sanctuary to the founder of the Salafi sect. The Salafi provided the political and military muscle to protect the House of Saud in the time of Ibn Saud. Honor debts have been paid between them, and such debts have no expiration dates. The situation has changed over time, Ibn Saud would purge them, creating the Saudi National Guard from its soldiery, but the religious aspects of the Ikhwan would become the muttawa'in religious police. Consider: the Queen of England is the titular Defender of the Faithful, nominal head of the Church of England. Though the comparison is so bad as to warrant a laugh, still, when one considers the marital problems of Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Lady Camilla, there is some congruence, the Saudis carry considerable historical freight, and cannot easily be rid of it without becoming instantly irrelevant, as the House of Windsor is now in danger of becoming irrelevant. Only the intervening history between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth II allows the comparison to fail. Salafism is the state religion of KSA.
Islam is not Christianity. Christ's kingdom was not of this world, he was crucified by the authorities. It would be centuries before Christianity took on any political trappings. The Prophet (saw) was a king in this world, and did what kings do: he made laws, waged wars, and left behind a squabbling family to manage his conquests. Therefore, politics and religion form a seamless whole in an Islamic culture. The Saudis cannot extricate themselves from their Faustian bargains, both with the Ikhwan and their historical rivals. Therefore, any reforms in the Muslim world must begin with societal reform. These societal reforms will transiate into political reform over time. One such advocate for transformation is best exemplified in the Institute for Secular Islam. Though Islam is as much a society as a religion, societies change over time. Certain proponents of Salafi doctrine, like the Hasidim of Israel, hate all such change, calling any such innovation bid'ah, and like the Hasidim of Israel, the Salafis are widely hated in their own country, but maintain special privileges. Like the Hasidim, some Salafi even reject the legitimacy of the KSA regime which supports them. The parallels between Israel and KSA are quite exact in this specific regard.
Saddam Hussein would murder Salafi missionaries when he detected them. Jordan and Egypt quietly deal with them, too. The Saudi court has historically backed them, but has developed an allergy to their troublemaking. There is a limited amount the Saudis can do to them, they receive zakat from many Saudi citizens, Islamic terror has never lacked funding. KSA tries to attenuate the Salafis, but there are limits to what even they can do. KSA's power may be absolute, but against the Ikhwan, the honor debt constrains them. Even now, John McCain goes to Canossa and genuflects before the faithful at Liberty University, our currency states One Nation Under God.
Yet societies do change, and not all such change is bid'ah. Because Islam cannot be extricated from society, Islam has deviated as widely as societies themselves.
The USA has badly managed the war of words in our struggles in the Middle East, on several fronts. The first such misunderstanding is to superimpose our own ideas of separation of Church and State onto Islamic societies, saying such things as "our war is not against Islam". It most certainly is a war against Islam, for it is a war against the specific hatemongers and clerics which give rise to Osama bin Ladin, Mohammed Atta and tens of thousands of violent jihadis. We should not be afraid to say so, it is the simple truth. The Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians are quite willing to jail violent clerics. We've castigated the Saudis for their policy on torture, but when we really want to indimidate some prisoner, we send in someone wearing a Saudi police uniform. Our hypocrisy on the issues of torture and human rights is manifest. The Saudis know us very well, far better than we know ourselves, it seems. For our republican form of government changes out its leadership on a regular basis, their own leadership remains.
In the past, the USA has cuddled up to many a tinhorn dictator, believing them to be SOBs, but at least they're our SOBs. They're not our SOBs. We're theirs. We do our own Faustian Bargains with violent jihadis, our insane policy of trusting the Pakistanis to manage the war against the Russians in Afghanistan planted the seeds which would flower in orange billows of fire and clouds of concrete dust on 9/11. We outsource our torture to them, another Faustian bargain which will come to haunt us in years to come. Our unalloyed and one-sided support for Israel, another regime crippled by its relationship to an intolerant Hasidic sect, casts doubt our our fairness. The long and disgusting tale of American hypocrisy in the Islamic world is well-documented by others: it is enough to say the Muslims despise us. We despise them for their treatment of women, they despise us as pornographers and abusers of women. Before we rise up to condemn them, let us sweep our own courtyards and wash our own hands, the epidemic of violence against women in both Islam and the West is a human disgrace.
There is another side to all this: Islam is not blameless, even by its own standards. The Salafi treat the Shii of their northeast with contempt, and deny them their rights. The manifest injustices visited on the guest workers in KSA are a hidden horror. KSA tolerates the excesses of the Ikhwan muttawa'in, who trapped screaming girls in a burning school, lest they emerge without their coverings, well yes, it was a national scandal in KSA, and there were a few heads knocked together over that incident, but the muttawa'in still carry their staves around and hit people with near-impunity. Their persecution of Christians and Hindus is contemptible. The Islamic world uses the Palestinians as a casus belli, but expelled them all with great prejudice during Gulf War One. The Islamic world is well-content to see the suffering of the Palestinians continue without end, a monstrous fitnah in violation of every Islamic doctrine governing hospitality.
How can we come to terms with KSA, and on a more general basis, Islam, without compromising our own ideals as Progressive Democrats? The answer is quite straightforward: drink their water. They have learned English, we have not learned Arabic. In an Islamic society, there is but one sort of politics, and that is personal friendship. A friend is someone who knows who you really are, and likes you anyway. Should the Democrats elect a president, he should only nominate ambassadors who have lived in those countries for many years, and preferably Muslims, there is no shortage of talent. In particular, with KSA, we should ask the Saudis themselves who they would like as an ambassador, through private back channels. It would take a decade or more to form up the friendships necessary to build out the level of statesmanship required. In particular, we should send out feelers to Prince Bandar, immediately, long before 2008, I would set Bill Clinton to the task forthwith. The Netroots are wide, we have within our own ranks the talent and linguistic skill required to create friendships with Arabs of good will everywhere. We should tone down the rhetoric about the many sins of the Saudis, out of simple politeness, nobody is more aware of his sins than the sinner himself. KSA is limited in what they can do about the Ihkwan, but they have an excellent intelligence network throughout the world, the war against Islamic terror is their war, too.
Christianity is about 600 years older than Islam. Six hundred years ago, Christianity was busily terrorizing the New World and the Hussites, spreading a faith by sword and fire. But here and there, among the war and Inquisition-ravaged detritus of Europe, a Renaissance was beginning. Before the 15th Century, Christianity had no intellectual competition. Islam is undergoing a wrenching transformation, sectarian war is on the rise, as it was in 15th Century Europe. All analogies fail, pushed too far, but I believe Islamic societies will have their own Renaissance, in time. Scholarship within the Arab world had preserved much the West had lost: the Renaissance was in large measure driven by Arabic texts and Arabic numerals.
The Qu'ran is short and cryptic, full of fire and war, well worth reading for the poetry alone, but it's subject to interpretation. If we are to attenuate the threat of Islamic terror, we must come to terms with Islamic society. We cannot change Islam, but our friendships can change societies, especially our own society, which has behaved stupidly towards KSA and every other Islamic society. The USA has created a horrible situation in Iraq, especially in Haditha. The Islamic terrorists are killing our soldiers, and other Iraqis, too. We cannot evict Bush tomorrow, and get our soldiers home, where they belong, soon enough. Up until a few days ago, I believed there was a good way out of Iraq, train the Iraqis, get them on their feet, protect the nascent democracy and free press of Iraq... not any more, folks. It's time to get the hell out. Now. After Haditha, it's obvious we're only doing more harm than good in Iraqi society. They can't do worse than we're doing now. Help them if we can, sure, but it's time to go.
If I wanted a workable exit strategy for Iraq, I'd privately solicit the Saudi opinion. They have their own fears and concerns, obviously Iraq is on their borders. The Saudis have a substantial Shii population up near Iraq. Now, not all the Saudi leaders are clever, but I'll bet the farm they've got some insights on how best to handle this situation, though they're hardly impartial. They got us to leave KSA, quietly but firmly, when things got too bad to tolerate our continued presence. I have no idea what they'd say, but I'm sure they've got an opinion, and maybe we ought to eat a little crow and finally ask the Arabs what they'd do about this mess. The Saudis have as much to lose in this as we do, and we both have much to gain by opening the dialogues now, privately, discreetly. The Arab way.