30 January 2016

Saudi Arabia and Iran: 1979 and the Islamic Narrative

In 1979 a group of Salafis overtook the Grand Mosque at Mecca. This group deliberately associated themselves with the Ikwhan movement from the days before the Saud family formally took over the reins of the new kingdom. As ultra-conservatives they believed the Saud family had been morally and theologically compromised. They had become too friendly with the West and were no longer worthy of being the guardians of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The house of Saud was illegitimate.

After two weeks the uprising was crushed but the Saudis were shaken. Their authority had been challenged, not by nationalists or some kind of secular reformers but by people claiming to be of a more pure and conservative religious motivation.
Wahhabism, a reformist and puritanical theological movement was more or less the norm in Saudi Arabia but there were those who believed the Saudis were compromised sell-outs and insufficiently pious and zealous for the cause and prerogatives of Islam. Their Wahhabi credentials were not above reproach.
In order to defend their standing the Saudis not only turned loose the religious teachers within the kingdom but began to export these teachings abroad. They were demonstrating their leadership of the Islamic world.
But interestingly what was a conservative and reactionary movement in Arabia proved to be nothing less than revolutionary when introduced into other contexts. What was preservationist in Arabia was radically transformative in other cultural contexts. Mainstream Islam (both Sunni and Shia) much like Roman Catholicism has fused traditionalist religions and syncretised philosophical as well as local cultic practices. Wahhabism was a back-to-Muhammad and the Koran type of movement... wholly different (but in an analogous sense) reminiscent of Christian Restorationism, Puritanism and Fundamentalism.
For Muslims across North Africa and throughout Asia this kind of purist devotion was nothing less than earth-shattering. Old cultic practices were to be abandoned, a life of devotion and a demand for a holy society meant challenging the West, the legacy of colonialism and modern states trying to rule within Western frameworks. This teaching exported through literature, mosques and popular teachers shocked the Islamic world and wittingly or unwittingly spawned a new generation of transformed Muslims, many frustrated, angry and willing to challenge both their local Islamic leadership and the corrupt secular governments they lived under. Those Muslims living in the West would discover a new sense of alienation and disgust. The moral degeneracy of the West would become amplified when cast into a specific theological narrative. What was considered foreign and maybe offensive now became dangerous and evil.
The Saudis were keen to pursue this policy not only because of the Grand Mosque incident, but because another event came to fruition in 1979 that shook the Muslim world... the revolution in Iran.
Even though Iran was Shiite and the conservative Sunnis of the world wholly despise the Shia... many could not help but admire the accomplishment of the Iranian Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini.
This wasn't a Nasser type movement based on nationalism standing up to the colonial powers. This was a purely Islamic movement that sought not only to cast out the colonial powers but to transform society, to roll back the social clock as it were and seek purification and form a theocracy. It's amazing how 'liberal' and Western societies like Iran and Afghanistan were in the 1960's and 70's. By the 1980's and 1990's these societies would be radically transformed into puritanical states. While the West continued to embrace secularism with gusto, the Islamic world was undergoing something of a revival that was only amplified when the USSR collapsed in 1991. For the Muslims of Central Asia, 1991 represented a milestone, not for democratic freedom, a notion wholly foreign to them. No, it marked the beginning of an emergence and an Islamic revival.
But for the Saudis in 1979 Iran looked like 'it' was the leader of the Islamic world. While rejecting its Shiite elements, Sunnis took notice and began to implement the zeal and fanaticism that had before only existed in Shiite circles. Before al Qaeda and groups like it, it was only the Shia who would blow themselves up and engage in the most extreme and fanatical forms of tactics and terror.
The Saudis were threatened not just by the internal threats that questioned their legitimacy but the outward challenge of spiritually leading the Islamic in a world affected by the events in Iran. The Saudis had to challenge this narrative and their opportunity came at the end of 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
The Saudis had recently solidified their relationship with the United States, a friendship they did not wish to broadcast but one they viewed as essential. In Afghanistan the Carter regime schemed and did all it could to provoke a Soviet invasion and once it occurred they were determined to create a Vietnam like situation for them. Thousands of Soviet soldiers would die and by the end of the 1980's around a million Afghans were dead and their society was destroyed. The rise of the Taliban should have been no surprise to anyone.
For the Islamic world this was the moment. If the USA was decadent and treacherous the Soviets were rank atheists, a cruel and godless scourge, a veritable cancer on the world. The USSR contained a large Muslim population while the US did not. The US was allied with Pakistan and had often been an enemy to India. The US though decadent and collaborative with regimes like that of Iran under the Shah did not have the overtly 'bad' record the Soviets did. They had schemed in the Middle East and were friends of Israel but... in 1979 the battle was in Afghanistan against the USSR.
Thousands flocked to Pakistan to join the growing insurgency. The US supported this, invited mujahideen to Washington and worked with the Saudis to stoke the fires of war. Out of this turmoil both al Qaeda and the Taliban were born.
But for the Saudis the war in Afghanistan was but another way they could demonstrate their leadership, their determination to direct the Islamic world. Iran would become mired in a long and terrible war with Iraq and become compromised in its failures and its complicity in dark schemes.
Finally, 1979 saw the creation of a treaty born from the previous year's meetings at Camp David. The treaty between Egypt and Israel would lead to a stability in the Middle East that still stands, at least for now. The Middle East has hardly been peaceful and the chaos that would erupt in Lebanon would demonstrate that though Israel would still be very much a part of Middle Eastern violence, they no longer had to fear the threat of a massive invasion akin to 1948, 1967 or 1973.
While the Saudis had scored great successes in the years subsequent to1979, the fruit of both US and Saudi machinations would come back to haunt them both. Sadat had betrayed conservative Muslims in meeting with the Zionists and he would pay for it with his life. But even more than that, these events would stir Islamic movements not only in Egypt in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood but militant Salafism would be unleashed from the Balkans to the frontiers of China and Southeast Asia. The export of what for the Saudis was a reform movement in their society proved revolutionary across the whole of the Muslim world.
The Saudis sought to demonstrate their leadership but their efforts have led to a furtherance of extremism that in the end has made their position all the more precarious. While it has fomented movements that have challenged Iran's narrative, the rise of Sunni militancy has also fanned the flames of the great Shia revival that Khomeini unleashed. In addition to contributing to geopolitical instability the House of Saud has unwittingly created armies of fighters that while benefitting from Saudi educational initiatives have been raised to despise the royal family and see it as compromised and duplicitous. The Saudis have started fires that they greatly fear will burn out of control in their own land and in the end bring down the monarchy. They also face internal strife and schemes and as demonstrated with Osama bin Laden, there is always the risk of ruling class defections.
Of course the United States has also engaged in double-dealing and has been all too eager to play with the double-edged sword that is Salafism. These fighters have proved useful to US objectives when it comes to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Syria, the Balkans, Chechnya and elsewhere but at the same time they pose a danger to US interests and have at times thwarted the United States. But considering the end result of these actions it would seem that those sitting atop the US system cannot be that displeased. These events have greatly enhanced their ability to implement both domestic and geopolitical objectives.
This rivalry and tension explains but a few of the aspects of the growing conflict in the Middle East. There are layers upon layers to what can only be described as a very complex situation. The Saudis while allied to the United States have their own struggles and concerns both regional and domestic. There are also echoes of this Sunni-Shiite struggle in the present tensions within Bahrain and the open proxy wars taking place in Yemen and Syria.
In some parts of the Islamic world there is the additional factor of Turkish nationalism which seeks to combat the influence of Wahhabist education and instead rally society behind a different set of nationalist and cultural concerns. Ironically the United States has funded these movements and has used them for political violence in the same manner that Salafi forces have been utilized in other settings.
No one fully trusts anyone. Why would they?
As a Christian perhaps what is most disturbing is to note the fingerprints of the Christian Right when it comes to these policies. Many Conservative Evangelicals would be nothing less than shocked if they understood the full scope of US geopolitical activities and the real nature of US policy over the past forty years. Christian dominated think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation have at times played a key role in shaping and promoting US policy and while many will grumble about the 'duplicity' of the Saudis they are more than happy to pursue the present arrangement in order to further US interests.
The fragile arrangement is in the process of being smashed and these actions catalysed by the Neoconservative wing and Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion have destabilised the whole of the Middle East. The bloodshed and instability has entangled the region in a massive and ever-growing war. These events do not take place in a vacuum but are instead contributing to worldwide geopolitical tensions and amplifying the very dangerous instability that overshadows the world at this time.
The Neoconservative wing has sought to remedy the seeming schizophrenia of US policy under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, but in their naiveté and false narratives they have instead weakened the US hand, empowered Islamist and Salafi elements and after years of chaos and death on a massive scale, the US once more finds itself employing many of these same elements as tactically necessary.
The fact that a strong 'Christian' fingerprint can be found on this massive crime in no way aids the mission of the Church. The confusion of US nationalism and militarism with Christian Dominionist zeal and piety has hurt the testimony of Christ across the world and has infected the US Church with various forms of theological cancer resulting in what must be identified as nothing less than apostasy and a rejection of Christ's Kingdom and the values and ethics it is supposed to represent.
Finally, there's an additional lesson that can be taken away from the Saudi experience. In their zeal for legitimacy and leadership they exported their conservative and reformist doctrines. And yet as has been noted, in other contexts these ideas were not reformist but revolutionary and spawned a host of hyper-zealous activists and warriors who took these ideas and sought to apply them in a very literal and determined fashion. Rather than look to the House of Saud as inspirational they came to despise it and the 'export' started a thousand fires that have taken on a life of their own.
For almost a generation Christian denominations and 'ministries' have aggressively promoted the Dominionist form of Evangelicalism in many countries. These doctrines which make political and social activism into forms of necessitated piety are being spread across Africa, Latin America and Asia. It would be one thing I suppose if they represented the teachings of Scripture but are in actuality a radical departure from it.
Nevertheless the Saudi lesson applies. What may be reformist in the context of the American Church and may simply serve to legitimise the American system of Middle Class Christianity and stir people to get out their wallets and go to the polls will likely prove very different in other social and historical contexts.
These doctrines will prove revolutionary in other settings and will form hybrid doctrines consequently leading to violent militias and heretical spin-offs. Of course Dominionism is a heresy to begin with but its interaction in other settings has and will generate variants that are more overtly heterodox. The combination of American-style Dominionism with the various strains of Pentecostalism has and no doubt will continue to prove disastrous. The backlash will likely be horrific.