Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Inside the Kingdom: Real News or More PR?

Yesterday The New York Times had a frontpager that jumped to a center spread about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This morning it is still prominently featured on the web site. Written by Ben Hubbard, "A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began." is unusually long and not as illuminating as one would have hoped after wading through all that type.

Hubbard tells the story of Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi who worked for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a.k.a, the religious police. Ghamdi figured out through his own research of the Quran and stories of the Prophet Muhammad that there was no doctrinal basis for the prohibition of woman from driving automobiles, mixing of the sexes, women showing their faces uncovered in public, etc.; that all these restrictions derived from traditional Arab culture not Islam.

In 2014 Ghamdi went on television with his wife, "her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup," as Hubbard writes,  to air his point of view, and then all hell broke lose. He was simultaneously ostracized and hounded by his fellow Saudis.

Hubbard does a decent job outlining the contours of the Saudi religious police state, a country, because of its oil wealth, that is probably without peer in terms of the thickness of its bureaucracy:
It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.
Hubbard mentions not at all the demographic time bomb that is about to detonate in the Kingdom. A tsunami of young people are soon to reach working age without any employment waiting for them.

Hubbard does go into the foundation of the modern Saudi state, the union of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, with the predatory militarism of the royal al-Saud family:
In the early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.
He formed an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and managed religious affairs.
That mix proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.
The first Saudi state was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and attempts to build another failed until the early 20th century, when King Abdulaziz al-Saud undertook a campaign that put him in control of most of the Arabian Peninsula.
But the king faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to build a modern state. He chose the latter, even crushing a group of his own warriors who refused to stop fighting.
Since then, the alliance between the royal family and the clerics has endured, although the tensions between the quest for ideological purity and the exigencies of modern statehood remain throughout Saudi society.
Hubbard does mention that there is growing sensitivity among the Kingdom's subjects that the outside world is none too appreciative of its Wahhabism. But the only time the Gray Lady's scribe really broaches the topic of the shared ideology of the Kingdom and the Islamic State is the laughable exchange he has with Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh:
We entered a vast reception hall near the mufti’s house in Riyadh, with padded benches along the walls where a dozen bearded students sat. In the center, on a raised armchair, sat the mufti, his feet in brown socks and perched on a pillow. The students read religious texts, and the mufti interjected with commentary. He was 75, Mr. Sheikh said, and had been blind since age 14, when a German doctor carried out a failed operation on his eyes.
Mr. Sheikh said I could ask him a question, so I asked how he responded to those who compared Wahhabism to the Islamic State.
“That is all lies and slander. Daesh is an aggressive, tyrannous group that has no relation,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State.
After a pause, he asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”
I responded that I was from a Christian family.
“The religion you follow has no source,” he said, adding that I should accept the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.
“Your religion is not a religion,” he said. “In the end, you will have to face God.”
Hubbard's story has somewhat of a happy ending. The religious police, like the U.S. thin blue line, got clipped because of a cellphone video:
It had been a rough year for the Commission. A video went viral of a girl yelping as she was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.
Then the Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were outraged.
In April, the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police. It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their interactions with citizens.
Mr. Ghamdi applauded the decision, although he remains an outcast, a sheikh whose positions rendered him unemployable in the Islamic kingdom.
Still and all, I can't help but feel that the story of Ghamdi the reformer is part of the PR campaign launched this year with Saudi Vision 2030 and the rise of the youthful Crown Prince Mohammed. Yemen has disappeared from The New York Times. Outside of an occasional mention in Reuters and the Associated Press, it is as if the Kingdom's war on Yemen doesn't exist.

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