COMMENT: The Kingdom in Pakistan —Saleem H Ali
During my last visit to Lahore when I interviewed various progressive scholars, they also expressed the strongest concern about America’s unflinching support for Saudi Arabia’s policies, which made them more suspicious of the West’s resolve in tackling extremism
The assassination of Dr Sarfraz Naeemi at a prominent madrassa in Lahore marks a turning point in Pakistan’s civil strife. The Taliban profess to be “pure” Sunni Muslims, and have targeted Shia mosques and seminaries many times before. However, Maulana Naeemi is the first notable Sunni scholar to be murdered by the Taliban.
The growing rift within Sunni Islam that has spread across Pakistan and fuelled the Taliban with foot soldiers from some radical centres of learning has clear connections to Wahhabi doctrines. The culpability of Saudi Arabia, both officially and privately, in perpetuating intolerance across the Muslim world must be duly acknowledged. No longer can we afford to believe cultural excuses from the Saudis for spreading ossified worldviews in other Muslim countries as a means of shielding their own state.
Pakistanis have also been made acutely aware of the arcane interpretations of sharia law in Saudi Arabia this week with the arrests of some poor pilgrims who were duped into drug trafficking by a Karachi agent.
While returning from Hajj three years ago, I had my first encounter with the pernicious evangelism of the Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam. Before boarding the flight from Jeddah to Islamabad, each passenger was handed a book in Urdu, free of charge, by the Saudi boarding agent in which allegations of heresy were made against any Muslims who did not adhere to the “pure” Saudi brand of Islam. If each Haji returning to Pakistan is to be gifted such vitriol against pluralism, imagine what is going on in madrassas that receive funds from Saudi sources.
Let us not forget also that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were initially the only two countries to recognise the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before 9/11 (the UAE also briefly recognised the regime).
Saudi financing of radical doctrines was acknowledged by the 9/11 Commission report, which points out that “awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shi’a Iran to promote its Sunni [sic!] fundamentalist version of Islam, Wahabbism.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, veteran journalist Lawrence Wright described how the rate of Saudi investment would impact the Muslim world: “...eventually, Saudi Arabia, which constitutes only a little over 1 percent of the world Muslim population would support 90 percent of the expenses of the entire faith, overriding other traditions in Islam.”
The Saudi influence in Pakistan is palpable everywhere. They bail us out when we run out of wheat; they provide political asylum in palaces to former prime ministers; they broker peace deals and provide funds for our weapons programmes.
No doubt some aspects of Saudi assistance to Pakistan and other Muslim countries are to be appreciated. However, what they want in return is an insidious evangelism of their exclusionary version of Islam, which must be resolutely rejected. They feel vindicated in destroying several mosques in their own country (such as the destruction of the Sabah Masajid in Medina) for fear of bidda’, or innovation, and we see the same callous destruction by the Taliban now of shrines and places of worship that deviate from their definition of “pure”.
While the world worries about Iran’s return to radicalism in the aftermath of the election, let us not forget the other radical Islamist country across the Gulf. In terms of human rights and treatment of minorities and women, Saudi Arabia is far more retrogressive than Iran and has played a more consequential role in the radicalisation of strategically important countries like Pakistan.
The Saudi government and Wahhabi sympathisers have recently attempted to differentiate Wahhabi Doctrine from “Qutbist” doctrine, named after the Egyptian Muslim Brother Syed Qutb, who travelled extensively in Western countries as well. They have argued that Al Qaeda leaders follow Qutbist views rather than Wahhabi views. However, this argument is not as compelling if one reads some of the writings of Syed Qutb, in books with misleading titles such as Islam and Universal Peace (1977). Much of this book follows a supremacist ideology that can be found in the Wahhabi tradition as well.
The Saudi government would claim that it has been a victim of terrorism by Al Qaeda as well. Indeed, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly declared war on the Saudi royal family. However, the Saudi government has realised that there is tacit support for many of Al Qaeda’s ideas within the Saudi people, and so they have co-opted many of the radical clerics by allowing them to evangelise in other Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Even from a theological perspective, the Saudi view of Islam is highly hypocritical. For example, there is no concept of a monarchy in the Islamic tradition and yet Saudi Arabia is a kingdom. Strict Wahhabi doctrine also forbids photography yet the Saudi monarch insists on his portrait being displayed in every office in the country!
The Saudi establishment has thus kept an uneasy and unprincipled balance of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Such an approach is unsustainable from the perspective of regional conflict resolution as well as for Saudi Arabia’s own viability as a state.
Maulana Naeemi had repeatedly warned against the influence of absolutist Saudi doctrines in Pakistan. He recognised that the Taliban ideology was most closely associated with the Salafi/Wahhabi brand of Islam. Many of the draconian capital punishments that the Taliban practised in the Swat valley were emulating judicially prescribed practices in Saudi Arabia. However, this source of Taliban doctrines is still not being fully recognised by Pakistanis or the West.
During my last visit to Lahore when I interviewed various progressive scholars, they also expressed the strongest concern about America’s unflinching support for Saudi Arabia’s policies, which made them more suspicious of the West’s resolve in tackling extremism. Perhaps such matters were on President Obama’s mind as he visited Saudi Arabia last month. The lack of transparency in any communications during that visit has once again left an unsettling impression.
The unholy alliance between the United States and the Saudis is going to be mutually destructive unless it is predicated on international principles and norms. As a member of the new G-20 group of world powers, the Saudis must be pressured by the other members to reform internally and stop exporting intolerance. The Great Kingdom of the Khaadim-ul Harmain risks becoming an unpleasant anachronism if it continues to resist positive change.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont and the author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009) www.saleemali.net