Review: The Religious and the Political in Saudi Arabia

Robert Lacey's Inside the Kingdom chronicles the destruction brought upon a society where education and justice are surrendered to clerics without knowledge of the wider world.

As global terrorism in the name of Islam has risen to take centrestage, a large amount of literature has emerged focusing on the “crisis of Islam”, mixing the work of fairly important political theorists such as Bernard Lewis (whose reputation took something of a bashing when he predicted the date that Iran would launch a nuclear strike on Israel in 2006) to polemicists such as Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. For many of them, writing in English for a US and European audience, the reference remained European history, which confused issues still further. For example, Hirsi Ali’s repeated claims of the need of an Islamic reformation and enlightenment worked wonderfully for an audience that was familiar with this inflection point in history. It unfortunately ignored the fact that Islam has never had the equivalent of a political-religious rule that the Holy Roman Empire and its successors represented. The only comparison would be that of Khomeini’s Vilayat-e-Faqih (the rule of jurists), which almost all Sunnis, and many Shia, reject as an un-Islamic innovation.

Those digging a little further have become enamoured by the term “Wahhabi”, which is now increasingly in use. This refers to the teachings of the 18th century cleric Mohammed Abdul ibn Wahhab, who preached a rather stern form of the (already rather conservative) Hanbali school of thought. More than his teachings, the reference to Wahhabism is really to the effect of the Saudi government’s export of their religious teachings. For any historian, especially one with any knowledge of South Asian history, this should set off alarm bells. There is a wealth of records showing how the local Islamic elite and British colonial authorities used the term “Wahhabi” as a pejorative to undermine both modernists and those that rebelled against the colonial status quo. For many British officers, the spread of Wahhabi ideology also explained the 1857 uprising.

Over time, historians have debunked these simple claims of religious natives raising the banner of revolt, while at the same time showing how the colonial experience led to societies – from Africa to the Indian sub-continent to East Asia – going “back to their roots” to find refuge in a world where they had lost political control. From the Boxer Rebellion to the rise of the Mahdi in Sudan, these “fundamentalist” movements often married religion and politics. Even the 1857 uprising carried strong anti-Christian currents, resulting in the persecution and murder of Anglo-Indians and Indians who had converted to Christianity.

Yet, while it is no longer respectable to consider anti-colonial movements as primarily driven by religious ideology, that pattern persists when looking at the various examples of Muslim movements, especially violent ones such as that of the Taliban and now ISIS. This may be partially explained by the black box at the centre of many of these issues – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudis have been closely involved in almost all of the recent major Muslim militant movements, from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. They are deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, and are the leaders of the long Sunni-Shia duel between the Gulf countries and those led by Iran. They are also deeply involved in the counterterrorism efforts, and are both “arsonists and firefighters”.

Inside the Kingdom

Robert Lacey
Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia
Arrow Books, 2009

Due to the dearth of knowledge on Saudi politics, the default position has been to go back to history and explain Saudi decisionmaking on the history of the country, especially the bond between the clerics and royal family. This is why Robert Lacey’s Inside the Kingdom is such required reading. Published in 2009, this book, subtitled ‘Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia’, is the outcome of thirty years of experience in the country. It benefits from the fact that Lacey wrote an earlier history of the Kingdom in 1981, and has lived largely in the country since then, and therefore he has access that is difficult to replicate. Everybody from the most senior princes in the Kingdom, to policemen, Shia leaders and former dissidents, and former jihadis are quoted – by name. The only person whose identity is obscured is that of a woman talking of a difficult marriage and her female lover. This, in itself, is an almost stellar achievement, but it is the long story of extremist teachings, and the outcome of the Saudi authorities ceding social, legal and educational space to the clerics which makes Inside the Kingdom so enlightening.

The main inflection point in this telling of the internal history of Saudi Arabia is the capture of the Ka’aba, the holiest shrine in Islam, by a group of radical Islamists led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, in November 1979. As terrible as the event was, the reaction of the Saudi royals was what laid the framework for later problems. In response to the slaughter and destruction that followed (for an Indian, it sounds very much like the siege of the Golden Temple). The then King, Khaled, had been dismayed by the fall of the Shah of Iran. “An apparently impregnable, Westernising autocrat, smiled on by America, with a huge army, an efficient secret police and burgeoning oil revenues, had been brought down without a serious shot being fired – all the Shah’s modernisation had proved helpless against the supposedly outmoded power of religion.”

So when the clerics said the disaster – brought on by their own pupils (the religious authorities had intervened to free Juhayman’s conspirators when the police had arrested them) – was caused because of the pictures of women’s pictures in newspapers, the King agreed with them. Over time, both Khaled and his successor, Fahd, surrendered more and more in terms of education and culture to the religious authorities, creating a generation of Saudi men whose education trained them for nothing useful in the world.

Soon thereafter the Soviet-Afghan war began, creating new heroes, as people like Osama bin Laden, already educated into seeing the world through a narrow worldview, went to fight for their faith. These heroes were lauded, the Rambos of Islam, and just as the fictional John Rambo comes back to a country where he finds no place for himself, the mujahideen, and their admirers found that the Saudi Arabia they returned to was not pure enough for them. Then the first Gulf War happened and the Saudis turned to the US for help, and the radicals were further offended. Unable to assess the reality of global politics, they could not understand the reason the royal family turned to the US for aid.

But there was another side to the coin, to sway US public opinion, Prince Bandar, the longstanding Saudi ambassador to the US, encouraged Saudi students to agitate, make banners, protest. After his exhortations, one of them replied, “Thank you, Your Royal Highness… But how shall we do this? We have never been educated to do such things – we’ve always been told that it’s un-Saudi to demonstrate. How do you expect us to do this now?” At the very same time, there was a protest in Saudi, as a group of 47 women in fourteen cars, decided to assert their right to drive on their own.

As is obvious, it was the women who were jailed.

Lacey’s book ends with the assumption of the throne by King Abdullah, who finally started taking power back from the clerics, especially in the field of education. But the damage had been done, moreover, something he remarks only lightly on, is the fact that judiciary is, and has always been, in the hands of the clerics. While the Kings can override the sentences, the bigotry and closemindedness that this interpretation of law injects into the society is massive, as evidenced by the woman who was sentenced to public lashing when she was raped (a terrible story near the end of the book). Inside the Kingdom thus chronicles the destruction brought upon a society where education and justice are surrendered to clerics who are neither knowledgeable about, nor necessarily, open to a wider world, in a country imbricated in various forms of war. As a bonus it shows how a US-led alliance structure born after World War II, and gestated in Cold War, is falling apart thereafter, with China and Russia stepping into the void. This is a view of a country that is explicitly political, where religion is an important political force, not merely an inexplicable ideology, and as such, incredibly useful to those struggling to deal with the rise of religion as a political force.

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