Middle East

Riyadh: Linchpin to a new religious order
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With a constant increase in the deployment of US forces in the Persian Gulf , the war against Iraq looks set for February. However, the paradigms of the military build-up so far suggest that the goal of the West in the Gulf region is by no means limited to the borders of Iraq. Indeed, the concentration of forces is also well suited to undermining the resurgent fundamentalist branches of Islam and their bases in the Muslim world.

The fact is, whether or not the US overthrows Saddam Hussein, its armed forces will remain face to face with the country at the ideological center of fundamentalist Islam. That country is not Iraq; it is Saudi Arabia. And it is this divide - between Western-style democracy and Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam - that remains at the heart of the coming conflict. The majority of Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims predominantly adhering to the strict interpretation of Islam taught by the Salafi or Wahhabi school that is the official state religion.

At present, US troops and bases are spread across the Middle East from Oman to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the continuous deployment of US forces in the Persian Gulf has virtually established de facto US hegemony over the region. With this force, the US has not only ensured a successful strike in case of a war in Iraq, but it has also severely damaged the prospects and attractions of those Islamist ideologies that have emerged as its natural rival.

"There is a deep realization among the US policy makers that in fact there are two concepts of Islam that prevail in the Muslim world. One emerged from Najad [Saudi Arabia], and the other very recently when the Turks ruled an Ottoman empire stretching from Turkey to Morocco," a US diplomat said recently. "The Islam that emerged from the deserts of Najad, called the Salafi branch of Islam, purely finds its sources in the holy book [Koran] and the teachings of Prophet [Sunnah]. The concept of Islam that evolved during the days of Turkish rule are also based on Koran and Sunnah, but instead of taking direct instructions from the book and the teachings, this concept relies on the interpretations of different scholars and Islamic jurists. The Islamic concepts which emerged from the deserts of Najad have always been extremist, whereas the concepts that evolved during Turkish empire are very moderate."

There is no geographical divide between the two concepts, both exist in all Muslim societies. Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan, the Jamaat-i-Islami Afghanistan, the Islamic political parties of Indonesia, Malaysia and Algeria, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, Hamas in Palestine, Chechen fighters etc - all belong to the Salafi branch and all are, or have been, the recipients of Saudi aid in one form or another. It is a fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the vanguard of this Salafi branch of Islam.

"Interestingly, in societies where these groups exist, there are other Islamic groups which do not follow Salafism, but instead believe in Sufism, an interpretation of Islamic scholarship in light of the Koran and Sunnah which teaches not quarrel but love. This concept evolved during Turkish rule," the diplomat says.

The US and Saudi Arabia have a 50-year history of friendship. The US turned a blind eye on anti-Western aspects of Saudi ideologies as long as the Saudis allowed the US to operate in their countries and gave the Americans a free hand in oil exploration and other fields. Egypt, for its part, oppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and hanged many of its leaders. This situation forced the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to take refuge in Saudi Arabia.

These leaders apparently laid the foundation of many peaceful social groups, like the Islamic Circle of North America and the Islamic Society of North America. These organizations are welfare organizations, but they are the source to spread a "resurgent" Salafi branch of Islam.

"Not only are these political Islamic groups sympathetic to organizations like al-Qaeda, but for many al-Qaeda leaders these organizations were the nurseries where they learnt the concepts of resurgent Islam which deviated into militancy against the US," the diplomat said.

Sources said that after September 11, the US started giving heavy-handed suggestions to Saudi Arabia for the reform of its religious schools - suggestions aimed at changing the syllabi of universities, such as the Islamic University in Medina and the Umul Qura in Mecca. The Saudi rulers agreed to make these changes but, considering the influence of religious forces in the shaping of Islamic study, the rulers have found that even the suggestion of such fundamental reforms are creating frictions not only between religious forces and the royal family, but also within the House of Saud itself.

A majority of the House of Saud is still an ardent believer of the Salafi branch of Islam and its strict practice as this ideology is the foundation of Saudi rule and, indeed, the country of Saudi Arabia itself.

In the presence of these realities, laying the foundation stone of Western democracy and civil society in a country like Saudi Arabia under the shadow of US guns would jolt the foundation of the House of Saud, its patron religious forces and their ideologies.

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Jan 4, 2003


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