Archive for the ‘Saudi Arabia and Islam’ category

The Axis of Moderation vs. the Axis of Resistance in the Middle East

December 1, 2017

The Axis of Moderation vs. the Axis of Resistance in the Middle East, Gatestone InstituteNajat AlSaied, December 1, 2017

(Please see also, Saudis Fed Up: “Palestinians Milking Us for Decades.” — DM)

“We are just returning to the Islam we are used to… The moderate Islam”. — Saudi Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on October 26, 2017.

Saudi Arabia’s complaints against Iran’s interference and spreading extremism cannot sound credible if extremism is being practiced inside Saudi Arabia.

There urgently needs to be a unified American position to confront the Axis of Resistance. Iran continues to be the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, empowering these armed militias and extremist groups — the basis of terrorism both in the region and across the world. It makes death threats, cooperates with a nuclearized North Korea, and all the while races toward nuclear weapons capability itself.

The dispute between the Arab states, often known as the Axis of Moderation, and the officially designated terrorist regime in Iran often known as the Axis of Resistance, is no longer just a political disagreement but a threat to the national security of Arab countries.

While the Arab states seem pro-statehood and work with other states, Iran and the Axis of resistance seems not to. Even though Iran calls itself Republic, it has a militia mentality and rarely deals with states. In general, rather than dealing with governments, it instead establishes militias, as it has in Lebanon and Yemen. Even in Iraq, where the government is considered its ally, Iran has established more than 15 militias. Qatar, by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as Syria under the Assad regime, seem to have the same mentality as Iran. If you trace the Axis of Resistance, all of them appear to have adopted the concept of supporting militias and extremist groups under the slogan of “resistance.”

The Iranian regime’s long history has now culminated in Saudi Arabia being targeted by Iranian missiles located in Yemen. They are coordinated in Lebanon by the Hezbollah militia, who train the Houthis in Yemen. It is important to understand that these violations and proxy wars carried out by the Iranian regime not only threaten the Arab Gulf states but also pose a threat to a regional and international security.

The Axis of Resistance is led by Iran, and includes Syria, Qatar, Hezbollah, Hamas, Arab Shiites loyal to Wilayat al-Faqih (“The Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”) in Iran and Arab nationalists. Its slogans consist of fighting imperialism, empowering the (supposedly) vulnerable — mainly Muslim Shiites — and furthering “Arab nationalism,” which usually manifests itself in support for Palestinians against Israelis.

The expansionist objectives of the Axis of Resistance — in its drive to build a “Shiite Crescent” from Iran to the Mediterranean, are clear, compared to the objectives of the Axis of Moderation, which have not announced any specific aims, except to denounce Iran’s interference in the Arab countries’ affairs.

The Axis of Moderation comprises Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf countries, except for Qatar. The great mistake that the Axis of Moderation has made in confronting the Iranian regime — to try to curb its export of the its “Revolution” — has been to fall into the trap of propagating sectarianism. While Iran portrayed itself as the defender of all the Shiites in the world, Saudi Arabia, as a result, acted as the defender of all the Sunnis in the Muslim world — accordingly, sectarianism was propagated. This polarization, however, has only furthered the interests of the Iranian regime, whose chief objective seems to be to continue igniting this division in an apparent policy of divide and conquer. Instead of the members of the Axis of Moderation confronting Iran politically or militarily, they challenged it on religious and sectarian grounds, such as publishing countless books against Shiites that describe them as the enemies of Islam and labelling all Shiites as subordinate to Iran, as if all Shiites were Iran’s puppets, which not all of them are.

U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, May 21, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This divisiveness has brought extremism and terrorism to the region, and has only harmed everyone.

Now the Axis of Moderation has become shrewder in its confrontation with the Iran and has employed a greater number of experts in Iranian affairs. The Axis of Moderation, especially Saudi Arabia, has realized that it cannot face down the threat of Iran without radical internal reforms. Saudi Arabia’s complaints against Iran’s interference and spreading extremism cannot sound credible if extremism is being practiced inside Saudi Arabia. These internal reforms, and liberalizing the society, are important internally: they will boost the economy by creating an attractive investment environment, especially for foreign investors. As importantly, reforms will stop any adversary from saying that Saudi Arabia is a state supporter of terrorism or a land that exports terrorists.

The most obvious changes are Saudi Arabia’s internal reforms that cover “social openness” in the form of concerts and festivals, coordinated by an entertainment body, and the country’s attempts to undermine clerical control, both by arresting extremists and establishing a committee at the Islamic University in Medina to codify the interpretation of Quranic verses that call for extremism, especially against other religions.

Saudi Arabia has also clamped down on corruption by arresting suspected businessmen, princes and former ministers. The kingdom has also raised the status of women by giving them more of their human rights, such as the recent lifting of the ban on women driving. In another important change, Saudi Arabia will also allow women to be clerics to confront all the patriarchal interpretations of verses in Quran related to women. Eventually, that could mean that lifting the ban requiring male guardians for women might also coming soon. The Saudi crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has also said that he will allow women to take sports classes in school, attend sporting event for women and to permit music. His wish, he has said, is to “restore Islam.”

The most important matter of all was pointed out by the Saudi Crown Prince, at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on October 26, 2017: “We are just returning to the Islam we are used to… The moderate Islam.” He also said, “We will not continue to be in the post-1979 era.”

This is essentially a confession that the approach that Saudi Arabia followed after 1979 to try to oppose the Khomeini Revolution was not helpful, and that now it is time for real reform to face both internal and external challenges.

What Saudi Arabia is doing will eventually contribute towards clarifying the aims of the Axis of Moderation, which will be to support countries whose primary objectives are development, modernity and stability. The most important goal is to stamp out terrorism by supporting a “moderate” Islam or, more specifically, supporting the approach that Saudi Arabia took before 1979. This approach was echoed by the UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, who said that the moderate countries boycotting Qatar are heading towards secularism — in contrast to Qatar’s support for Islamist militias such as Hezbollah, and radical groups in the Axis of Resistance, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

What has complicated the situation has been an exploitation of the conflict in the United States between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party over how to fight terrorism by countries in the Axis of Resistance such as Qatar.

The double face of Qatar is revealed in many ways. Al Jazeera in English, for instance — as mentioned the article, “Al Jazeera: Non-Arabs Should Not Be Fooled” — is totally different from Al Jazeera in Arabic.

Ahmed Mansour, for example, one of Al Jazeera’s anchors, tweeted about Hurricane “Irma” in Florida by citing a Koranic verse to say that what is happening in America is God’s curse: “Twenty million Americans fled out of fear from Hurricane Irma,” he wrote; then he cited a verse from Quran saying,

“And He shows you His signs. So which of the signs of Allah do you deny?” (40:81, Sahih International)

After his tweet in Arabic was read by American journalists, he apologized in a very sweet tweet in English.

Qatar also pretends to the US that it is supportive of its values, but in fact has close ties with all the enemies of the US. Sultan Saad Al-Muraikhi, Qatar’s permanent envoy to the Arab League, for example, has called Iran, which the US has officially designated as a terrorist state, an “honorable state”. Qatar also disagrees with designating Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations and calls them, instead, “resistance movements” against Israel.

Qatar has, moreover, used that dispute for its own ends by way of an alliance with the Democratic Party’s allies and supporters.

Many Qatari writers and Qatar’s supporters, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, have written articles against the Trump administration, as opposed to the previous administration which clearly had a soft spot for the Muslim Brotherhood. From the beginning, the administration of US President Barack Obama overruled Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, by insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood attend Obamas speech in Cairo, thereby setting the stage for the fall of Mubarak; and also strongly supported the subsequent regime then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood). Obama also openly counted the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among his “best friends.”

These opinion-makers in the US, evidently nostalgic for the previous administration, and known, especially during the Iran Deal, as not exactly alignedwith the Axis of Moderation, seem to have been exploiting the rift between the Democrats and Republicans, apparently hoping for the impeachment of Donald Trump. As a Saudi academic and researcher, Ahmad Al-faraj, wrote in his article, “Qatar: The dream of isolating Trump!,” they possibly think that a Democrat President, like Obama, would again support them.

While Qatar makes itself out to be tolerant and a supporter of democratic Americans and Westerners, anyone who watches Al Jazeera in Arabic will find nothing other than pure hatred of Western values and enormous support for armed militias such as Hezbollah and terrorist groups such as Hamas.

There urgently needs, therefore, to be a unified American position to confront the Axis of Resistance. Iran continues to be the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, empowering these armed militias and extremist groups — the basis of terrorism both in the region and across the world. It makes death threatscooperates with a nuclearized North Korea, and all the while races toward nuclear weapons capability itself. The United States would also do well to advocate a unified European position, and draw support from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, European governments, for their own economic interests, have turned a blind eye to all the terrorism, extremism and sectarianism that Iran is fomenting. European countries should be warned that if they continue to put these economic interests ahead of global security, not only will the decision undermine the already-fragile national security of their own countries but also those of the region.

It is in the interest of the United States and world peace to support the pillars of an Axis of Moderation that would:

  • Eliminate political Islam because it exploits religion for radical political goals in both the Sunni and Shiite sects. The Shiite version of political Islam failed in Iraq and the Sunni version of the Muslim Brotherhood failed in Egypt and Tunisia. In both versions of political Islam, violence and terrorism are exacerbated.
  • Undermine Iran’s influence among armed militias in the region such as the militia Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi in Yemen and the sectarian militias in Iraq. These should be classified as terrorist organizations. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has already been classified as such by the United States on October 31, 2001. Any country that supports Hamas or defends it, even in its media, should be classified as terrorist too.
  • Prevent the existence of armed militias operating as a state within a state; they are the beginning of the collapse of states and therefore a serious threat to peace and stability.
  • Consolidate the principles of secularism in internal and external dealings. Incitement to sectarian and racial hatred must be prevented as well as the use of Quranic verses to spread violence and extremism. To keep Iraq out of Iran’s control, non-sectarian neighborly relations need to be maintained.
  • Instill the principles of tolerance and respect for all religions and sects and guarantee the free practice of religions and the protection of minorities.

Moderate countries will not promote the rhetoric of a fight with Israel, as does the Axis of Resistance, led by Iran; instead, the Axis of Moderation is now committed to the principles of peace, which are based on the common interests of states to ensure the security and prosperity of all citizens.

The region and the world as a whole have suffered from the actions of the Iranian regime and its allies. There should be no justification for the existence of militias and extremist groups under the banner of resistance or similar pretexts. The international community needs to be firm in challenging states that allow or support such groups and should stress that states can only protect themselves with armies and armed forces, not with militias. A unified American and European position needs to help the Axis of Moderation to prevent countries in turmoil from becoming cantons of militias and extremist groups. That seems a more constructive way to fight terrorism and build global stability.

Najat AlSaied is a Saudi American academic and the author of “Screens of Influence: Arab Satellite Television & Social Development”. She is an Assistant Professor at Zayed University in the College of Communication and Media Sciences in Dubai-UAE.

This article was first published in Arabic at Al Hurra.

Saudi Purges and Duty to Act

November 8, 2017

Saudi Purges and Duty to Act, FrontPage MagazineCaroline Glick, November 8, 2017

Originally published by the Jerusalem Post

While many of the officials arrested over the weekend threaten Mohammed’s power, they aren’t the only ones that he has purged. In September Mohammed arrested some 30 senior Wahhabist clerics and intellectuals. And Saturday’s arrest of the princes, cabinet ministers and business leaders was followed up by further arrests of senior Wahhabist clerics.

At the same time, Mohammed has been promoting clerics who espouse tolerance for other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. He has removed the Saudi religious police’s power to conduct arrests and he has taken seemingly credible steps to finally lift the kingdom-wide prohibition on women driving.

Given Saudi Arabia’s record, and the kingdom’s 70-year alliance with Wahhabist clerics, it is hard to know whether Mohammed’s move signals an irrevocable breach between the House of Saud and the Wahhabists.

But the direction is clear. With Hariri’s removal from Lebanon, the lines between the forces of jihad and terrorism led by Iran, and the forces that oppose them are clearer than ever before. And the necessity of acting against the former and helping the latter has similarly never been more obvious.

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For 70 years, Saudi Arabia served as the largest and most significant incubator of Sunni jihad. Its Wahhabist Islamic establishment funded radical mosques throughout the world. Saudi princes have supported radical Islamic clerics who have indoctrinated their followers to pursue jihad against the non-Islamic world. Saudi money stands behind most of the radical Islamic groups in the non-Islamic world that have in turn financed terrorist groups like Hamas and al-Qaida and have insulated radical Islam from scrutiny by Western governments and academics. Indeed, Saudi money stands behind the silence of critics of jihadist Islam in universities throughout the Western world.

As Mitchell Bard documented in his 2011 book, The Arab Lobby, any power pro-Israel forces in Washington, DC, have developed pales in comparison to the power of Arab forces, led by the Saudi government. Saudi government spending on lobbyists in Washington far outstrips that of any other nation. According to Justice Department disclosures from earlier this year, since 2015, Saudi Arabia vastly increased its spending on influence peddling. According to a report by The Intercept, “Since 2015, the Kingdom has expanded the number of foreign agents on retainer to 145, up from 25 registered agents during the previous two-year period.”

Saudi lobbyists shielded the kingdom from serious criticism after 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were shown to be Saudi nationals. They blocked a reconsideration of the US’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia after the attacks and in subsequent years, even as it was revealed that Princess Haifa, wife of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the time the September 11 attacks occurred, had financially supported two of the hijackers in the months that preceded the attacks.

The US position on Saudi Arabia cooled demonstrably during the Obama administration. This cooling was not due to a newfound concern over Saudi financial support for radical Islam in the US. To the contrary, the Obama administration was friendlier to Islamists than any previous administration. Consider the Obama administration’s placement of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in key positions in the federal government. For instance, in 2010, then secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano appointed Mohamed Elibiary to the department’s Homeland Security Advisory Board. Elibiary had a long, open record of support both for the Muslim Brotherhood and for the Iranian regime. In his position he was instrumental in purging discussion of Islam and Jihad from instruction materials used by the US military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The Obama administration’s cold relations with the Saudi regime owed to its pronounced desire to ditch the US’s traditional alliance with the Saudis, the Egyptians and the US’s other traditional Sunni allies in favor of an alliance with the Iranian regime.

During the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood’s close ties to the Iranian regime became increasingly obvious. Among other indicators, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi hosted Iranian leaders in Cairo and was poised to renew Egypt’s diplomatic ties with Iran before he was overthrown by the military in July 2013. Morsi permitted Iranian warships to traverse the Suez Canal for the first time in decades.

Saudi Arabia joined Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group in 2014.

It was also during this period that the Saudis began warming their attitude toward Israel. Through Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leading role in opposing Iran’s nuclear program and its rising power in the Middle East, the Saudis began changing their positions on Israel.

Netanyahu’s long-time foreign policy adviser, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs president Dr. Dore Gold, who authored the 2003 bestseller Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism which exposed Saudi Arabia’s role in promoting jihadist Islam, spearheaded a process of developing Israel’s security and diplomatic ties with Riyadh. Those ties, which are based on shared opposition to Iran’s regional empowerment, led to the surprising emergence of a working alliance between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE with Israel during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas – the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is in the context of Saudi Arabia’s reassessment of its interests and realignment of strategic posture in recent years that the dramatic events of the past few days in the kingdom must be seen.

Saturday’s sudden announcement that a new anti-corruption panel headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the near simultaneous announcement of the arrest of more than two dozen royal family members, cabinet ministers and prominent businessmen is predominantly being presented as a power seizure by the crown prince. Amid widespread rumors that King Salman will soon abdicate the throne to his son, it is reasonable for the 32-year-old crown prince to work to neutralize all power centers that could threaten his ascension to the throne.

But there is clearly also something strategically more significant going on. While many of the officials arrested over the weekend threaten Mohammed’s power, they aren’t the only ones that he has purged. In September Mohammed arrested some 30 senior Wahhabist clerics and intellectuals. And Saturday’s arrest of the princes, cabinet ministers and business leaders was followed up by further arrests of senior Wahhabist clerics.

At the same time, Mohammed has been promoting clerics who espouse tolerance for other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. He has removed the Saudi religious police’s power to conduct arrests and he has taken seemingly credible steps to finally lift the kingdom-wide prohibition on women driving.

At the same time, Mohammed has escalated the kingdom’s operations against Iran’s proxies in Yemen.

And of course, on Saturday, he staged the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri amid Hariri’s allegations that Hezbollah and Iran were plotting his murder, much as they stood behind the 2005 assassination of his father, prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

There can be little doubt that there was coordination between the Saudi regime and the Trump administration regarding Saturday’s actions. The timing of the administration’s release last week of most of the files US special forces seized during their 2011 raid of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was likely not a coincidence.

The files, which the Obama administration refused to release, make clear that Obama’s two chief pretensions – that al-Qaida was a spent force by the time US forces killed bin Laden, and that Iran was interested in moderating its behavior were both untrue. The documents showed that al-Qaida’s operations remained a significant worldwide threat to US interests.

And perhaps more significantly, they showed that Iran was al-Qaida’s chief state sponsor. Much of al-Qaida’s leadership, including bin Laden’s sons, operated from Iran. The notion – touted by Obama and his administration – that Shi’ite Iranians and Sunni terrorists from al-Qaida and other groups were incapable of cooperating was demonstrated to be an utter fiction by the documents.

Their publication now, as Saudi Arabia takes more determined steps to slash its support for radical Islamists, and separate itself from Wahhabist Islam, draws a clear distinction between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Given Saudi Arabia’s record, and the kingdom’s 70-year alliance with Wahhabist clerics, it is hard to know whether Mohammed’s move signals an irrevocable breach between the House of Saud and the Wahhabists.

But the direction is clear. With Hariri’s removal from Lebanon, the lines between the forces of jihad and terrorism led by Iran, and the forces that oppose them are clearer than ever before. And the necessity of acting against the former and helping the latter has similarly never been more obvious.

What You Need To Know About Saudi Arabia’s Mass Arrests

November 7, 2017

What You Need To Know About Saudi Arabia’s Mass Arrests, The Federalist, November 7, 2017

There are two ways to interpret the purge over the weekend and the series of moves against Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment. The first is that Mohammad is a true reformer, who wants to prepare his country to survive well into the twenty-first century. To be able to pursue the reforms necessary for that survival, he’s removing anyone he thinks would or could oppose his rule and all its attendant reforms.

The other possibility is that he fears being overthrown and sees the religious leadership in his country as the most serious threat to his power and planned reforms, which he believes will keep young Saudis happy.

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Let’s talk about some real palace intrigue. On Saturday, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia arrested more than ten princes, four ministers, and dozens of former ministers, including several clerics. That list included the noted billionaire and investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world. The move shocked the globe and sent speculations flying.

So what’s going on in the House of Saud? This is the latest step in the consolidation of power of the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The young crown prince is powerful and highly influential mostly because he has the ear of his father, King Salman. No doubt, the crown prince was instrumental in the king’s announcement, just hours before the arrests, of a new anti-corruption committee, which, according to The New York Times, “has the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel, or freeze the assets of anyone it deems corrupt.”

Not surprisingly, Mohammad was appointed as the chair of this new committee. Because of how intertwined the enormous Saudi royal family is with the government in Riyadh, the lines between private and public money are fuzzy, making corruption charges easy to conjure.

In addition to the high-profile arrests, the Saudi government closed the airport in Riyadh that is used for private planes — preventing any rich family members or allegedly threatening figures from leaving the country — and Salman announced he is taking the place of the minister in charge of the Saudi national guard, putting all three of the Saudi armed forces under the de facto control of the crown prince, who is also the minister of defense.

Latest in a Series of Saudi Leadership Upheavals

Although the Saturday night arrests were the largest and most surprising moves to consolidate power, they aren’t the first, nor are they out of character for the young king-to-be. Mohammad is a relative newcomer to the line of succession. He only became the crown prince in June, taking the place of the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, who has since been under house arrest.

This change represented a major upheaval of the Saudi system of succession and upset many in the Saudi royal family. Since the founding of the kingdom in 1932 by King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, also known as Ibn Saud, the throne has gone from brother to brother among Ibn Saud’s children (he had 45 sons). When Mohammed bin Nayef was named crown prince in 2015, he was the first prince to become next in line to the throne who was not one of Ibn Saud’s sons. However, it kept with the spirit of the tradition in that he is the son of the current king’s brother. By redirecting the line of succession to his own son, Salman upended more than 60 years of royal tradition.

It’s unclear, at this point, how the royals will react to this soft coup, or if there’s really anything they can do about it. The crown prince is trying to consolidate power and eliminate any potential threats to his succession to the throne, and it’s working. It’s almost like a silent coup.

Mohammad’s Vision for Saudi Arabia

All of this intrigue raises questions about the new crown prince and what, exactly, he wants. Mohammad made his name as a reformer in the short two years since he rose to the national scene, most notably as the author of a 2016 plan to transform Saudi Arabia and reduce the country’s dependency on oil. The plan, called “Vision 2030,” focuses on modernizing the economy, promoting tourism and education, and supporting non-oil industry trade in the wake of plummeting oil prices.

His vision for Saudi Arabia also appears to be one in which religious fundamentalism takes a back seat. Mohammad was behind the September decision to change Saudi Arabia’s long-standing, ridiculous ban on women driving, a central component to restricting and monitoring the movement of women and keeping them out of the work force. Women will also be allowed to enter sports stadiums beginning next year. In addition, the crown prince approved public concerts this year, which had been banned, and there are rumors of the return of movie theaters to Saudi Arabia (they’ve been gone since the 1980s).

Lifting the driving ban, along with the other cultural reforms, are changes that Saudi clerics, who adhere to an ultra-strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism, strongly oppose. But Mohammad has said in no uncertain terms that he will move forward with his plan to bring moderation to Saudi Arabia, with or without the clerics.

In October, at a conference in Riyadh, he described his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia, one where religious extremism has no place. He promised to rid the country of “extremist ideologies” and return to “a more moderate Islam.” He went on to say, “Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately.”

At that same conference, the crown prince referenced 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution and when Sunni fundamentalists took control of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca. 1979 was, in the crown’s view, when Saudi Arabia took a sharp turn toward religious fundamentalism. He told the conference attendees, “All we’re doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people.”

It was smart for him to allude to Iran, his country’s nemesis in the region, to link modernization with anti-Iran sentiments — something it would be difficult for Saudi clerics to counter given the ongoing tensions between the two countries, including the proxy war in Yemen. On Monday, tensions with Iran ratcheted up further when Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war against it in the wake of the resignation Saturday of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a Saudi-allied Lebanese politician. Saudi officials blamed the resignation on Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group that the United States considers a terrorist organization but is nonetheless represented in the Lebanese parliament.

A Bid for Young People’s Support

But for all the regional geopolitical problems facing Saudi Arabia, domestic troubles are just as pressing. Mohammed’s confrontation with the religious establishment first revved up in 2016, when he spurred the reforms of the country’s religious police, including banning them from making arrests. Some saw this as merely a symbolic move (the religious police have, in the past, been chastened only to make a comeback). But even if that’s true, symbolically pushing back against the powerful clerical class is a bold step and an indication that the young prince means to radically change the country, and perhaps more importantly for him, ensure that he ascends to the royal throne and stays there.

Saudi clerics seem to be getting the message that they’re going to have to go along to get along. After Saturday’s purge, which included the arrests of dozens of clerics, the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s main religious body, expressed approval for the arrests and support for fighting corruption.

The audience for all these reforms, as evidenced by the crown prince’s October speech, are Saudi Arabia’s youth. Mohammed is trying to woo the young people who make up the majority of the country. Perhaps he’s doing this because he knows that if Saudi Arabia stays culturally entrenched in fundamentalist Islamic ideology, it’s destined to fall prey to the instability endemic to the region. There will, eventually, be a revolt, especially if the oil economy falters and the government is no longer able to keep the population well-fed and well-paid.

There are two ways to interpret the purge over the weekend and the series of moves against Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment. The first is that Mohammad is a true reformer, who wants to prepare his country to survive well into the twenty-first century. To be able to pursue the reforms necessary for that survival, he’s removing anyone he thinks would or could oppose his rule and all its attendant reforms.

The other possibility is that he fears being overthrown and sees the religious leadership in his country as the most serious threat to his power and planned reforms, which he believes will keep young Saudis happy.

Saudi women ‘thank God’ for end to driving ban

September 28, 2017

Saudi women ‘thank God’ for end to driving ban, Israel Hayom, September 28, 2017

(Old Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — DM)

A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia. Archives: Reuters

Women will be allowed to obtain licenses without the permission of a male relative.

A muted response from Saudi Arabia’s clergy, which has long backed the ban, suggested power shared between the Al Saud dynasty and the Wahhabi religious establishment could be shifting decisively in favor of the royals.

Many younger Saudis regard Prince Mohammed’s ascent as evidence their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women’s progress.

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Saudi Arabian women rejoiced at their new freedom to drive on Wednesday, with some taking to the roads even though licenses will not be issued for nine months.

Hundreds of others chatted with hiring managers at a Riyadh job fair, factoring in the new element in their career plans: their ability to drive themselves to work.

“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop,” Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested in 2011 after a driving protest, said in an online statement.

King Salman announced the historic change on Tuesday, ending a conservative tradition which limited women’s mobility and was seen by rights activists as an emblem of their suppression.

Saudi Arabia was the only remaining country in the world to bar women from driving.

At the jobs fair, Sultana, 30, said she had received four job offers since graduating from law school two years ago but turned them down because of transport issues.

“My parents don’t allow me to use Uber or Careem, so one of my brothers or the driver would need to take me,” she said, referring to dial-a-ride companies.

“I’m so excited to learn how to drive. This will be a big difference for me. I will be independent. I won’t need a driver. I can do everything myself.”

She plans to start taking driving lessons when her family travels abroad for vacation.

Other women weren’t waiting. Internet videos showed a handful of women driving cars overnight, even though the ban has not been officially lifted.

The move represents a big crack in the laws and social mores governing women in the conservative Muslim kingdom. The guardianship system requires women to have a male relative’s approval for most decisions on education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment.

The new initiative recalls previous modernizing milestones that unnerved conservatives at first but were eventually accepted, such as the 1960s start of state education for girls and the introduction of television.

The decree is expected to boost the fortunes of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has ascended to the heights of power in the kingdom with an ambitious domestic reform program and assertive foreign policy.

He said letting women drive is a “huge step forward” and that “society is ready.”

“This is the right time to do the right thing,” he told reporters. Women will be allowed to obtain licenses without the permission of a male relative.

A muted response from Saudi Arabia’s clergy, which has long backed the ban, suggested power shared between the Al Saud dynasty and the Wahhabi religious establishment could be shifting decisively in favor of the royals.

Many younger Saudis regard Prince Mohammed’s ascent as evidence their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women’s progress.

Sharif, the activist, described the driving ban’s removal as “just the start to end long-standing unjust laws [that] have always considered Saudi women minors who are not trusted to drive their own destiny.”

A driving instructor at a government-run center said women called all day to inquire about registering a license, but he had received no instructions yet from the government.

Um Faisal, a mother of six, said her daughters would get licenses as soon as possible.

“Years ago, there wasn’t work outside the house. But today women need to get out and go places. This generation needs to drive,” she said, clad in a long black abaya.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington said on Tuesday women would not need their guardians’ permission to get a license, nor to have a guardian in the car when driving.

In a country where gender segregation has been strictly enforced for decades in keeping with the austere Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, the decree means women will have regular contact with unrelated men, such as fellow drivers and traffic police.

Other rules have loosened recently, with the government sponsoring concerts deemed un-Islamic by clerics, allowing women into a large sports stadium for the first time and permitting them to dance beside men in a central Riyadh street over the weekend.

Amnesty International welcomed the decree as “long overdue” but said there was still a range of discriminatory laws and practices that needed to be overturned.

That risks inflaming tensions with influential Wahhabi clerics with whom the ruling Al Saud has enjoyed a close strategic alliance since the kingdom’s founding.

The state-backed Council of Religious Scholars expressed support for the king’s decree. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, who has repeatedly opposed women working and driving and said letting them into politics may mean “opening the door to evil,” has yet to comment.

On that note, meanwhile, a Saudi woman was named to a senior government post for the first time, authorities said on Wednesday.

Eman Al-Ghamidi was given the post “as part of plan to boost the number of females in leadership positions in line with Vision 2030,” the Center for International Communication at the Ministry of Culture and Information said in a statement.

The Saudi government has said Vision 2030, a vast plan of economic and social reforms, will raise women’s share of the labor market to 30% from 22% currently.

Still, some men expressed outrage at the about-face by prominent clerics, who in the past have sometimes justified the driving ban by saying women’s brains are too small or that driving endangered their ovaries.

“Whoever says this is permitted is a sinner. Women driving means great evils and this makes them especially sinful,” one Twitter user wrote.

Kawthar al-Arbash, a member of the Shura Council, a government advisory body, acknowledged that resistance, saying: “That’s how things go. Everything new is accompanied by fears.”

Lori Boghardt, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the change is yet another sign that the crown prince is intent on adopting social reforms that will transform the kingdom.

“Today it’s especially clear that this includes moves that’ve long been thought of by Saudis as politically risky,” she said.

Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights activists, said, “I am really excited. This is a good step forward for women’s rights.”

Speaking to The Associated Press from Riyadh, she said women were “happy” but also that the change was “the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for.”

Malaysia Kills a Talking Point

August 11, 2017

Malaysia Kills a Talking Point, Investigative Project on Terrorism, August 11, 2017

In trying to cast their faith as tolerant and accepting of others, many Muslims like to point to the Quran’s verse 2:256: “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion,” it begins.

It’s a comforting thought. While dawa, a form of proselytizing, is a key element of the faith, the argument makes it sound as if there are no repercussions for those who do not accept the faith or who reject it.

But, in scripture and in practice, this simply is not true.

Verse 25:11, for example, warns: “But they have disbelieved the Hour (the Day of Judgment) and for those who disbelieve the Hour, We have prepared a flaming fire.” Verse 4:151 similarly, promises “the disbelievers a humiliating torment.”

Right now in Malaysia – often held up as an example of a moderate Muslim-majority nation – police are under instruction to “hunt down” non-believers through state-mandated re-education programs and “fix their faith” if they once were Muslims.

All this because of a photograph posted online Aug. 2 which showed a group of more than three dozen smiling young people who are part of the Atheist Republic, a support and social media outlet with more than 1 million followers worldwide. Founder Armin Navabi created the group while still living in Iran, one of 13 Muslim-majority countries that punishes apostasy with death.

The meeting in Kuala Lumpur “was such a blast,” the Facebook post said. “Atheists from all walks of life came to meet one another, some for the very first time…each sharing their stories and forming new friendships that hopefully will last a lifetime! We rock!”

They did harm to no one. But cabinet minister Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim learned of the gathering and saw a threat to Malaysia’s national well-being. He called for authorities to “hunt down” those present, noting that Malaysia’s constitution is silent about atheists. “This clearly shows that the group goes against the Constitution and basic rights,” he said.

While Malaysia is one of the countries that can carry out the death penalty for apostasy, no government official is using such terms. So far. Social media, however, is filled with death threats against the Malaysian atheists.

“Advise them and tell them that Islam is not to be played with,” Danizaynal Dani wrote. “If they refuse to repent we burn them alive. An apostate’s blood is halal for slaughter.”

“It is better to die from hanging for murder, than to die as an apostate,” wrote Irfan Samsuri.

Navabi also co-hosts a podcast with other ex-Muslims, called, “Secular Jihadists from the Middle East.” In an emotionally-charged special episode on the Malaysian threats Tuesday night, he said police had already visited at least one of the people in the photograph. He was surprised by the reaction. He was less surprised by the lack of attention Western news outlets and supposed liberal activists have given the situation.

“If this was happening to any other group, any other group, there would be an outcry right now,” he said. “If this was a group of Muslims being treated like this, if this was a group of Christians being treated like this, the whole world would be reacting to it right now.”

Navabi’s observation leads to the simple question: Why isn’t this attack on freedom gaining more attention? None of the national Islamist activist groups, which would organize protests and marches if the targets were Muslims, have said anything. The same groups have pushed the “no compulsion in religion” argument, though, so it might be difficult to acknowledge the rights of ex-Muslims in Malaysia without grappling with some uncomfortable realities.

Unfortunately, the same also can be said for a series of other cases in which Muslim-majority countries prosecute or see mob violence attack and kill people for thought crimes. One hears very little about these cases outside of the interest groups directly affected.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has jailed writer Raif Badawi for more than five years for the crime of writing about secularism. His sentence also includes 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which nearly killed him. His wife described the scene that she later saw in an online video:

“But I saw clearly that he was striking Raif with all his might. Raif’s head was bowed. In very quick succession he took the blows all over the back of his body: he was lashed from shoulders to calves, while the men around him clapped and uttered pious phrases.”

In Bangladesh, a series of brutal machete attacks killed at least 11secular and atheist bloggers since 2013. One, Avijit Roy, was an American citizen. His wife was severely injured, but survived and continues to speak out about free expression.

Regardless of one’s views on religion, these Malaysian people’s plight – like Raif Badawi’s and like the slaughtered Bangladeshi writers – is about the right to free speech, free thought and peaceful assembly. These ideals are the foundation of a free society, or liberty.

It would be nice if more people—of any or no religion—called out these human rights abuses.

Takfir is extremism’s demonic fruit

July 18, 2017

Takfir is extremism’s demonic fruit, Al ArabiyaMohammed Al Shaikh, July 18, 2017

We must admit – as I’ve repeatedly said – that the murder and Islamized bloody revolutions we’ve witnessed in the past three decades were based on texts from our inherited legacy, and they are not related to conspiracies as naïve men think. Most of this legacy is the result of man’s interpretation of godly texts – interpretations that are not necessarily the only possible ones for this or that Quranic verse or hadith.

The second substantial point regarding the massive amounts of fatwas (religious edicts) and jurisprudential stances we’ve inherited is that there are fixed principles which jurists call “pillars of Islam.” There are variables which are related to man’s life and not to his religion as they depend on his interests and the society he lives in. Therefore, it’s not necessary for what was good years ago to be good for applying now. What matters at all times is achieving interests and warding off evil.

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Al-Ghazali once said: “Only ignorant men rush to accusing others of apostasy.” I’ve memorized this quote ever since I read it and I recall it every time someone makes rushed judgments accusing others of apostasy. When I listen to how they ended up with this dangerous conclusion, I realize that Ghazali’s statement was accurate and true.

If we delve into inherited jurisprudential legacies, we’d notice that takfir, i.e. accusations of apostasy, were common during times of political strife and unrest.

The seriousness of such accusations is that they justify wars, murder and rebellion against political rulers. This is why ambitious politicians and figures behind political revolutions resort to this method to attract followers and break free from loyalty to the current system of governance.

When the first Khawarij rebelled against the man whom the pledge of allegiance was made to, they justified their political revolution with the slogan “There’s no rule but for Allah.” They justified their political differences with others via religious and opportunist excuses. The new Khawarij, i.e. the Islamized Brotherhood and branching groups like Sururists and politicized Islamized revolutionary movements, used that same slogan.

They also adopted the approach of accusing others of apostasy. These takfirist movements, which are called Sahwa, ended in tragedies, destruction, bloodshed and strife. The atheism phenomenon, which has recently spread in modern Arab societies, was mainly due to the violent repercussions and violations of security and stability that rivals committed in the name of religion.

Murderous screams

The murderer screams “Allah Akbar” when he kills and the killed screams “Allah Akbar” while defending himself. Meanwhile, someone else raises religious slogans to justify some actions and another raises different slogans to defend his words and so on.

We must admit – as I’ve repeatedly said – that the murder and Islamized bloody revolutions we’ve witnessed in the past three decades were based on texts from our inherited legacy, and they are not related to conspiracies as naïve men think. Most of this legacy is the result of man’s interpretation of godly texts – interpretations that are not necessarily the only possible ones for this or that Quranic verse or hadith.

The second substantial point regarding the massive amounts of fatwas (religious edicts) and jurisprudential stances we’ve inherited is that there are fixed principles which jurists call “pillars of Islam.” There are variables which are related to man’s life and not to his religion as they depend on his interests and the society he lives in. Therefore, it’s not necessary for what was good years ago to be good for applying now. What matters at all times is achieving interests and warding off evil.

I was one of those thrilled when Saudi King Salman and his guest US President Donald Trump inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (Etidal) during the latter’s visit to Riyadh. If this center succeeds in monitoring the phenomenon of extremism that leads to terrorism and manages to identify the manifestations of extremism in the inherited legacy and works to correct them through educating and raising awareness via the media, then we will be taking practical measures and making our first step on the right path.