Monday, July 24, 2006

Looking at Islam's internal debates

Last week John Burgess linked to Saudi Debate, a site which publishes exactly that: a candid, informed discussion of issues as seen from Saudi Arabia. With the naivete of most Americans I was pleased to learn that Hezbollah was not receiving a blanket endorsement of it's provocation of Israel which has prompted the current crisis. And when a Saudi cleric issued a fatwa against the group I was frankly surprised. This fatwa business is serious, crossing a line separating politics and religion that we Americans like to keep bright.

When I read the first of the two essays at Saudi Debate I got bogged down in the language. Lots of references to fine points of Islamic doctrine and discussion that seemed like doctrinal hair-splitting. But the more I read, the more I realized that these commentators are not writing to or for me, the Western, American reader. They are discussing divisions among themselves, using terms that mean more to them than me.

If the reader is looking for evidence that this or that writer is pro- or anti-American, he looks in vain. Both simply take a hard look at the current situation, trying to see it in a way that makes sense. Both clearly have the Arabian best interests in mind and criticism is intended to be constructive but not damaging. Let no one be misled. Both are what we would call patriots. This approach is seems alien to our own which is by its very nature adversarial.

Having said all that, here is the summary that appears at the site.


24 July 2006: As the death toll among Lebanese civilians rises, Arab states have found themselves torn between their anger at Israel for its barbarism, and anger at the Lebanese Hizbollah organisation for taking the action - the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers - which provided Israel with the pretext for its onslaught. Ignored by the United States, powerless at the United Nations, and lacking influence over the key actors now using Lebanon as their battlefield, the Arab states now find themselves both ineffective as mediators and uncertain as to how to react. In a detailed analysis of the Saudi position, Khalid Al-Dakhil argues on SaudiDebate.com that the Saudi government's refusal to condone Hizbollah's action was the correct decision, though one that has revealed Arab impotence, Iranian ambitions and the true extent of the region's sectarian divide.

By contrast, the criticism of Hizbollah eminating from Arab capitals is regarded by
Madawi Al-Rasheed as a clear sign that governments across the region are concerned that the 'model' provided by the Lebanese group is one that represents a serious challenge to their credibility. By working within Lebanon's democratic system, leading the opposition to Israeli occupation and building bridges with Hamas' Sunnis, Hizbollah has forged an identity which has far deeper roots in popular sentiment than that of its critics among Arab governments. Focusing on the Saudi response to the crisis, Dr Al-Rasheed argues that even in defeat Hizbollah will remain a political force to be reckoned with.

Don't get lost as you read these two pieces. Each is linked to the appropriate author above. I do a lot of reading and don't get lost easily, but I had to study both of these pieces closely to grasp the differences between them...and the differences are not subtle. Both are critical of Hezbollah (or Hizbollah. to which one respectfully refers as Hizb Allah) but for different reasons. And the reasons are not all that a hopeful American reader might want.

I have been puzzled how the Sunni-Shite divide figures into the big picture, and these two pieces are helpful in clarifying that question. Remember that Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni but not without its Shiia component. This demographic is in some way a reflection of global Islam.

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed is Professor of Social Anthropology at King’s College, University of London. She is currently working on a study of religio-political debate in Saudi Arabia after 11 September 2001.

Saudi Islamists – the majority of whom are Sunnis – proved that they have a love-hate relationship with Hizb Allah. They are envious of its previous record and the popularity of its leader, Nasr Allah. Yet they managed to overlook their religious differences and sectarian identity when they glorified the resistance of Nasr Allah’s men in Lebanon. Salman al-Awdah, a Sahwai sheikh, supported the Lebanese resistance on one of the Saudi-sponsored Arab television stations. Many Saudi Islamists prioritised tawhid al-umma – the unity of the umma – rather than tawhid al-milla – unity in creed and sect – the first being a much needed position during times of crisis.

(Sorry about that, reader. It gets worse.)

Notwithstanding Ibn Jibrin’s fatwa – which is endorsed by many Saudis – Saudi enmity towards Hizb Allah does not solely stem from Sunni-Shia divide. This enmity has other deeper and more fundamental reasons behind it.

First, Saudi Arabia endeavours to destroy any manifestation of political Islam that is anchored in a local nationalist context. While the regime had always supported and patronised Umami (globalised) Islamist movements and trends within the spectrum of Islamism, it had always antagonised and fought against localised national Islamists, like Hizb Allah. Islamists in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen and – more recently – Iraqi Islamists represented by Hayat Ulama al-Muslimin, all have stories to tell about Saudi animosity towards their programme, which is anchored in one country.

By contrast, globalised Islamist movements – for example al-Qaeda – were initially supported by Saudi Arabia. The regime patronised those leaders who carried the Jihad to distant lands. Its religious scholars glorified the Amirs of Jihad – Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden for example. Umami movements struggled in the way of God abroad: Afghanistan, Philippines, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and elsewhere.

[Much more in detail at the link. Very strong writing. Very pursuasive argument.]

The second reason the Saudi regime nourishes enmity towards Hizb Allah is because it has succeeded in bridging the Sunni-Shia schism by embracing the Sunni Hamas organisation and its struggle against a Zionist state determined to eliminate the Palestinians, especially those who reject its terms for peace.

As resistance movements, both Hamas and Hizb Allah accepted to be partners in the struggle in the way of God, thus leaving their sectarian identities behind – something that Iraqi Islamists, both Sunni and Shia, have failed to reach even under occupation or perhaps because of occupation.

[Again, more at the link.]

The third cause of Riyadh’s antagonism stems from Hizb Allah’s acceptance of the democratic process. Hizb Allah has played by democratic rules and abided by its results, while continuing to see itself as a resistance movement that liberated southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. [Nabih Berri, current speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah both grew from the Amal Movement, the root political group of Shiite Lebanon. The same soil produced both. They share the same constituency.] Hizb Allah developed an all-encompassing social policy that overcame the reservations Islamists had about parliaments, elections, the participation of women in public life and coexistence with other, secular political parties. It accepted to resist Israel with other political parties in Lebanon. Hizb Allah reached out to other groups in a pluralist society like that of Lebanon. Although physically its supporters confined themselves to al-Dhahiyya al-Janoubiyya that developed all the institutions and services associated with a state, it managed to build bridges with other political groups not only in Lebanon but also elsewhere.

[Still more...And saving the best for last...]

Most importantly, the Saudi regime fears the replication of the Hizb Allah model on its own territory and specifically in the oil rich Eastern Province. [more...]
...
Although the regime reached a reconciliation with the Shia opposition groups in 1993, leading to the return of most Shia exiles from London, Damascus and Beirut, mistrust and latent enmity remain, especially as the regime has failed to restrain the likes of Ibn Jibrin, who continue to issue divisive and bigoted opinions against the Shia. So far the Saudi Shia have held the view that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. They put their intellectual skills at the service of the Saudi regime when it declared its own war on terror against al-Qaeda. Their writers started glorifying Saudi citizenship and partnership, and denouncing Wahhabi radicalism at a time when the regime needed to defeat al-Qaeda cells, and the Saudi Shia were enlisted in the Saudi regime’s battle against radicals whose radicalism was anchored in the Wahhabi tradition.
[...]
The Hizb Allah model will remain a source of inspiration for Saudi Shia. In fact, Hizb Allah al-Hijaz had already made an appearance. With the Saudi Shia reconciliation, it seems that this movement began to be consolidated as it attracted those Shia who refused to be part of the Accord reached early in the 1990s.

[Final paragraph. Read it and weep.]

Saudi Arabia wishes the demise of Hizb Allah because it forged a Muslim Brotherhood which the Saudi regime endeavoured to prevent, despite the rhetoric of its support for Arab and Muslim causes. Previously, Israel invaded Lebanon to root out Palestinians. It succeeded in sending the PLO into exile in other Arab countries. Hizb Allah cannot be rooted out. It may be defeated militarily but it will continue to haunt not only the inhabitants of northern Israel but also the Saudi regime for a long time after the fires die down. The support it commanded in the Arab street – and increasingly among Saudis – worries Arab regimes that are regarded by their own people as symbols of treachery and treason. The Arab street has defined its own axis of evil: the Egyptian-Jordanian-Saudi trio who blamed Hizb Allah rather than Israel for the destruction of Lebanon for the second time.

Khalid Al-Dakhil is a Saudi writer and academic. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has been assistant professor of sociology at King Saud University, Riyadh since 1998. He was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in September-December 2003. His piece is less powerful but shows just as much frustration with what is happening.

The sixth Arab-Israeli war is being waged on the Lebanese–Israeli border. No Arab State is involved in this war. Lebanese Hizbullah is the only party to this war on the Arab side, and indeed it is Hizbullah that ignited the war. In doing so Hizbullah was representative of no Arab state – not even the Lebanese state, whose nationality it bears and in whose government it participates.

In addition - and as usual - an Arab media war has got under way over the war.

There are numerous reasons why this situation has such enormous significance.

The most important reason is that this is the first Arab-Israeli war that has been waged in the absence of any Arab state. Instead, the Arab states – in particular those which were once called the ‘frontline’ states in the Arab-Israeli conflict – have found themselves in the thick of a war about which they were never consulted or had any idea was going to happen, before it erupted. That is with the exception of Syria, since Hizbullah would not have dared engulf the region in a war without Syria’s agreement, Hizbullah being Syria's most important ally in Lebanon, and Syria being Hizbullah’s most important regional ally after Iran.

[How many times do we need to be told? Not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslim. If you haven't got it yet, read it again until you do.]

It is indisputable that decisions on the issues of "peace and war" are the exclusive right of the state. An essential characteristic of the state – and in particular the modern state, in the view of the German sociologist Max Weber – is the monopoly it has over the legitimate use of force: including declaring war or peace. Without this the state does not exist. It is impermissible – legally and politically – for any party to infringe this right, and it is highly dangerous for a non-state actor to take matters into its own hands.

Such unilateralism – and the insistence upon it – implies schism in the first place; second, it implies the weakening of the state vis-à-vis other states; and, third, it exposes the very same autocratic and dictatorial attitude which Hizbollah’s leaders themselves know to be a key cause of the political deterioration in the Arab world.
[...]
The adventure may succeed but may also end in disaster, and herein lies both the danger and the crime.

In case of success, the adventurer wins everything at the expense of others. In the case of failure he seeks to silence others by claiming: 'I have tried – and now it is your turn to try.' In other words, the interests and the positions of the others are of no value. Thus, the unilateralist impulse is consolidated, the notion of statehood disappears and the destiny of the nation comes to hang on adventurism.

Is this reasonable?

[...]

But there is another fact: Lebanon and the region face an aggressive, colonial, settler state, which is implementing its project in a ferocious and systematic manner, against which the Arabs have proved themselves impotent at a time when Iran’s strength and regional role is obviously growing.

It appears that Iran wants to take advantage of the vacuum that Arab impotence has created and continues to create, and which it wants to exploit for the benefit of its regional role. As a result, the Arab states – and principally Saudi Arabia – considered Hizbullah's fedayi operation to be a miscalculated adventure which has pushed the region into a war that accords essentially with Iran’s strategy.

Thus, Saudi Arabia found itself facing a war about which it had not been consulted, in whose objectives it does not believe, and whose repercussions for Saudi interests in Lebanon and the region as a whole are substantial.
[...]
Arab collapses come one after another. The major Arab issues have been removed from Arab hands and placed in those of American, Europeans and Israelis instead. It is unacceptable for the Arab role to be reduced either to an insipid and ineffective mediating role – as in Egypt’s case – or to that of offering financial assistance to alleviate the devastation of the seemingly endless Arab catastrophes, as is the case with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

But it is the falling away of the Arab role which has opened the door for miscalculated adventures of the kind now laying waste to Lebanon.

These are the voices of our allies in the region. I take no comfort from what they are saying. If all our prating about democracy is to have any meaning, it seems to me we should be more in the business of winning more support among the great unwashed than those responsible for sending their problems abroad. The leadership of the Middle East has been flush with wealth for my whole lifetime. Why in the world have they not done a better job of bringing their people into the Twentieth Century? If China and India can do it, then why not them?

1 comment:

John Burgess said...

Excellent post.

I think Al-Dakhil over-analyses the situation though. Occam's Razor looks for the simplest yet sufficient causes. That, I think, can be found in one place: Iran.

While all of Dakhil's reasoning may be sound--and I believe it to be--it is not the way Saudi government officials think. It is far more the way political scientists think.

Saudi Arabia has more than enough immediate geopolitical reasons to be wary of Iran, dating back at least to 1979. Arab-Persian enmity date back millenia.