Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of TRIBES WITH FLAGS TO COME

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis, but its elite is bitterly divided on how to escape it. King Abdullah and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan factions lead a camp of fake liberal reformers seeking rapprochement with the West and Israel, while Prince Nayef, the interior minister, sides with an anti-American Wahhabi religious establishment that has much in common with al Qaeda. Abdullah cuts a higher profile abroad -- but at home Nayef and many others cast a longer and darker shadow....


When an attack on a residential compound in Riyadh killed 17 people and wounded 122 in early November 2003, U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the incident for Saudi Arabian politics. "We have the utmost faith that the direction chosen for this nation by Crown Prince Abdullah, the political and economic reforms, will not be swayed by these horrible terrorists," said Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in Riyadh for a visit.

But if any such faith existed, it was quite misplaced. Abdullah's reforms were already being curtailed, the retrenchment having begun in the wake of a similar attack six months earlier. And despite what was reported in the American press, an end to the reforms was exactly what the bombers and their ideological supporters hoped to accomplish. To understand why this is the case -- and why one of Washington's staunchest allies has been incubating a murderous anti-Americanism -- one must delve into the murky depths of Saudi Arabia's domestic politics.

The Saudi state is a fragmented entity, divided between the fiefdoms of the royal family. Among the four or five most powerful princes, two stand out: Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Relations between these two leaders are visibly tense. In the United States, Abdullah cuts a higher profile. But at home in Saudi Arabia, Nayef, who controls the secret police, casts a longer and darker shadow. Ever since King Fahd's stroke in 1995, the question of succession has been hanging over the entire system, but neither prince has enough clout to capture the throne.

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis. The economy cannot keep pace with population growth, the welfare state is rapidly deteriorating, and regional and sectarian resentments are rising to the fore. These problems have been exacerbated by an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Many agree that the Saudi political system must somehow evolve, but a profound cultural schizophrenia prevents the elite from agreeing on the specifics of reform....

The Saudi monarchy functions as the intermediary between two distinct political communities: a Westernized elite that looks to Europe and the United States as models of political development, and a Wahhabi religious establishment that holds up its interpretation of Islam's golden age as a guide. The clerics consider any plan that gives a voice to non-Wahhabis as idolatrous. Saudi Arabia's two most powerful princes have taken opposing sides in this debate: Abdullah tilts toward the liberal reformers and seeks a rapprochement with the United States, whereas Nayef sides with the clerics and takes direction from an anti-American religious establishment that shares many goals with al Qaeda.

The Power of Tawhid

The two camps divide over a single question: whether the state should reduce the power of the religious establishment. On the right side of the political spectrum, the clerics and Nayef take their stand on the principle of Tawhid, or "monotheism," as defined by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of Wahhabism. In their view, many people who claim to be monotheists are actually polytheists and idolaters. For the most radical Saudi clerics, these enemies include Christians, Jews, Shi`ites, and even insufficiently devout Sunni Muslims. From the perspective of Tawhid, these groups constitute a grand conspiracy to destroy true Islam. The United States, the "Idol of the Age," leads the cabal. It attacked Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, both times making common cause with Shi`ites; it supports the Jews against the Sunni Muslim Palestinians; it promotes Shi`ite interests in Iraq; and it presses the Saudi government to de-Wahhabize its educational curriculum. Cable television and the Internet, meanwhile, have released a torrent of idolatry. With its permissive attitude toward sex, its pervasive Christian undertones, and its support for unfettered female freedom, U.S. culture corrodes Saudi society from within.

Tawhid is closely connected to jihad, the struggle -- sometimes by force of arms, sometimes by stern persuasion -- against idolatry. In the minds of the clerics, stomping out pagan cultural and political practices at home and supporting war against Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq are two sides of the same coin. Jihad against idolatry, the clerics never tire of repeating, is eternal, "lasting until Judgment Day," when true monotheism will destroy polytheism once and for all.

The doctrine of Tawhid ensures a unique political status for the clerics in Saudi Arabia. After all, they alone have the necessary training to detect and root out idolatry so as to safeguard the purity of the realm. Tawhid is thus not just an intolerant religious doctrine but also a political principle that legitimizes the repressiveness of the Saudi state. It is no wonder, therefore, that Nayef, head of the secret security apparatus, is a strong supporter of Tawhid. Not known personally as a pious man, Nayef zealously defends Wahhabi puritanism because he knows on which side his bread is buttered -- as do others with a stake in the repressive status quo.

In foreign policy, Nayef's support for Tawhid translates into support for jihad, and so it is he -- not Abdullah -- who presides over the Saudi fund for the support of the Palestinian intifada (which the clerics regard as a defensive jihad against the onslaught of the Zionist-Crusader alliance). On the domestic front, Nayef indirectly controls the controversial Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the religious police. The cpvpv came under withering attack in March 2002 when its men reportedly used batons to beat back schoolgirls as they tried to flee from a burning dormitory. The girls, so the story goes, failed to cover themselves in proper Islamic attire before running from the flames, and the religious police then mindlessly enforced the laws on public decency. More than a dozen girls were trampled to death in the incident. It is impossible to say whether the story is true in all respects, but considerable evidence indicates that the cpvpv did in some manner hamper rescue efforts. Nayef, however, flatly denies that the religious police did anything wrong.

The Call of Taqarub

If Tawhid is the right pole of the Saudi political spectrum, then the doctrine of Taqarub -- rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims -- marks the left. Taqarub promotes the notion of peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers. It also seeks to expand the political community by legitimizing the political involvement of groups that the Wahhabis consider non-Muslim -- Shi`ites, secularists, feminists, and so on. In foreign policy, Taqarub downplays the importance of jihad, allowing Saudis to live in peace with Christian Americans, Jewish Israelis, and even Shi`ite Iranians. In short, Taqarub stands in opposition to the siege mentality fostered by Tawhid.

Abdullah clearly associates himself with Taqarub. He has advocated relaxing restrictions on public debate, promoted democratic reform, and supported a reduction in the power of the clerics. Between January and May 2003, he presided over an unusually open "national dialogue" with prominent Saudi liberals. Two separate petitions established the essential character of the discussion: the National Reform Document, which offered a road map for Saudi democracy, and Partners in the Homeland, a call by the oppressed Shi`ite community for greater freedoms. The first endorsed direct elections, the establishment of an independent judiciary, and an increased public role for women. Its drafters also took pains to express respect for Islamic law. The clerics were not mollified, but this affront to their sensibilities was as nothing compared to the Shi`ite petition, which, in their eyes, issued straight from the bowels of hell.

The Saudi religious establishment is viscerally and vocally hostile to Shi`ism. Although Shi`ites constitute between 10 and 15 percent of the population, they do not enjoy even the most basic rights of religious freedom. Nevertheless, in an unprecedented move, the crown prince met with their leaders and accepted their petition. The controlled Saudi press did not publish the petition or even report on it, but Abdullah's move sent ripples of discontent through the Saudi religious classes.

By floating the "Saudi Plan" for Arab-Israeli peace -- traveling to Crawford, Texas, to debate the measure with President George W. Bush in April 2003 -- and accepting the notorious Shi`ite petition, the crown prince has sided resolutely with the backers of Taqarub against the hard-line clerics. To a Western eye there is no inherent connection between Abdullah's domestic political reform agenda and his rapprochement policies toward non-Muslim states and Shi`ite "heretics." In a political culture policed by Wahhabis, however, they are seen to be cut from the same cloth.

The Threat of Takfir

While Abdullah has signaled friendship with the West, Nayef has encouraged jihad -- to the point of offering tacit support for al Qaeda. In November 2002, for example, he absolved the Saudi hijackers of responsibility for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In an interview published openly in Saudi Arabia, he stated that al Qaeda could not possibly have planned an operation of such magnitude. Nayef perceived an Israeli plot instead, arguing that the attacks aroused so much hostility to Muslims they must have been planned by the enemies of Islam. This statement not only endorsed the clerics' paranoid conspiracy theory, but, more important, sent a message that the secret police saw no justification for tracking down al Qaeda.

The case of the Saudi cleric Ali bin al-Khudayr helps explain Nayef's stance. A close associate of al Qaeda, al-Khudayr is known as a leader of the takfiri-jihadi stream of Islamic radicalism -- that is, as someone quick to engage in takfir, the practice of proclaiming fellow Sunnis guilty of apostasy (a crime punishable by death).* After September 11, he issued a fatwa advising his followers to rejoice at the attacks. Depicting the United States as one of the greatest enemies that Islam has ever faced, he chided those who had misgivings about the deaths of so many innocent civilians, listing a number of American "crimes" that justified the attacks: "killing and displacing Muslims, aiding the Muslims' enemies against them, spreading secularism, forcefully imposing blasphemy on peoples and states, and persecuting the mujahideen."

Al-Khudayr was eventually arrested by Nayef's security services, but only after the May 2003 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 34 people -- when the cleric's brand of extremism began to threaten the political status quo. Until then, he had been allowed to operate freely and spread his violent anti-Americanism without constraint. Why? Because along the way he helped terrorize critics of the religious establishment. For Nayef, Wahhabi vigilantism is useful in keeping reformers in check.

Saudi journalist Mansur al-Nuqaydan, for example, is an open critic of the hard-line clerics. An ex-Islamic extremist himself, he went to jail in his youth for rooting out idolatry by firebombing a video store. The combination of his personal background, his mastery of the clerics' idiom, and his clear and unflinching support for Taqarub makes him particularly threatening to the religious establishment. Consequently, the extremists have singled him out for special treatment.

Along with some associates, al-Khudayr accused al-Nuqaydan of apostasy, pointing to the text of an interview in which the journalist committed the crimes of "secular humanism" and "scorn for religion, its rites, and devout people." Particularly incriminating, claimed the clerics, was al-Nuqaydan's conviction that "we need an Islam reconciled with the other, an Islam that does not know hatred for others because of their beliefs or their inclinations. We need a new Reformation, a bold reinterpretation of the religious text so that we can reconcile ourselves with the world." On the basis of this expression of Taqarub he was sentenced to death, with the edict posted publicly on al-Khudayr's Web site. For five months, the authorities did nothing. In a regime where openly practicing Shi`ism can land you in jail for years, al-Khudayr's period of freedom speaks volumes. So long as the cleric was limiting his activities to inciting violence against Americans and intimidating reformers, Nayef had no argument with him.

Around the same time that al-Khudayr was arrested, on the other hand, al-Nuqaydan lost his job and soon after was barred from writing or traveling abroad -- a casualty of a parallel crackdown on the reform movement. For Nayef, whose chief concern is to protect the status quo, there is nothing puzzling about this juxtaposition. Al-Khudayr ran afoul of him when bombs targeting the regime started going off, but al-Nuqaydan also represented something of a threat to the Saudi elite. Nayef himself does not take overt responsibility for the persecution of the reformers, but the hand of the secret police is barely hidden from view.

The sequence of events is now familiar. Either without warning or in response to a complaint by a prominent cleric, a critic of the religious establishment loses his job. His employers subsequently refuse to comment. Islamic extremists then issue a death threat to the unemployed man over the phone or on the Internet. In 1999, for example, an associate of al-Khudayr's issued a fatwa against the Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad, who later signed the National Reform Document. Partly as a result, al-Hamad received a slew of death threats. He and his family were also harassed by the cpvpv. The novelist turned to Abdullah for help, receiving a sympathetic hearing and an offer of physical protection. By offering only bodyguards, however, Abdullah tacitly admitted that he could not control the shadowy parts of the government that belong to his half-brother.

Uncle Tom "Court Jew " Friedman

In the aftermath of September 11, informed American opinion concluded that Osama bin Laden had attacked "the far enemy" -- the United States -- in order to foment revolution against "the near enemy" -- the Saudi regime. Subsequent events have confirmed that al Qaeda does indeed use the war with the United States as an instrument against its domestic enemies. Yet the tacit cooperation between Nayef and al-Khudayr shows that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Saudi royal family is more complex than most people seem to think.

To better understand how al Qaeda reads Saudi Arabia's political map, one can turn to the work of Yusuf al-Ayyiri, a prolific al Qaeda propagandist who died last June in a skirmish with the Saudi security services. Just before his death he wrote a revealing book, The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, which gives a good picture of how al Qaeda activists perceive the world around them.

According to al-Ayyiri, the United States and Israel are the leaders of a global anti-Islamic movement -- "Zio-Crusaderism" -- that seeks the destruction of true Islam and dominion over the Middle East. Zio-Crusaderism's most effective weapon is democracy, because popular sovereignty separates religion from the state and thereby disembowels Islam, a holistic religion that has a strong political dimension. In its plot to denature Islam, al-Ayyiri claims, Zio-Crusaderism embraces three local allies: secularists, Shi`ites, and lax Sunnis (that is, those who sympathize with the idea of separating religion from state). Al Qaeda's "near enemy," in other words, is the cluster of forces supporting Taqarub.

The chief difference between the ways al Qaeda and the Saudi religious establishment define their primary foes is that the former includes the Saudi royal family as part of the problem whereas the latter does not. This divergence is not insignificant, but it does not preclude limited or tacit cooperation on some issues. Although some in the Saudi regime are indeed bin Laden's enemies, others are his de facto allies. Al Qaeda activists sense, moreover, that U.S. plans to separate mosque and state constitute the greatest immediate threat to their designs and know that the time is not yet ripe for a broad revolution. So al Qaeda's short-term goal is not to topple the regime but to shift Saudi Arabia's domestic balance of power to the right and punish supporters of Taqarub.