November 25, 2015

Saudi Arabia and ISIL: A False Equation but Troubling Echoes

Arabic test
A member of the Saudi border guards forces patrols the fence on Saudi Arabia's northern border with Iraq, near Arar City on February 23, 2015. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

A growing trope in mainstream Western analysis, which is also present in some parts of Arab and Muslim discourse, casts the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the political and moral equivalent of the terrorist group ISIL (also known as ISIS, the “Islamic State,” and Daesh). This conflation is wrong regarding most aspects of conduct and policy, especially relations to the international and regional order. But it does evoke some troubling echoes and influences that must be of concern even to those who see the problems with this equation. The comparison does not arise within a total void. Although the analogy is unjustified, it does raise serious concerns that need to be addressed by mainstream Saudi society and its government.

The American “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, has been at the forefront of publicizing the notion that “ISIL equals Saudi Arabia” in recent weeks. A September 2 article by Times columnist Thomas Friedman promoted this metaphor. In “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” Friedman opines that “several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations” because “all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

This explicit cause-and-effect theory about the relationship between the mainstream civic, political, and religious culture in a society and the attraction to such terrorist groups in its population doesn’t scan well. Among the largest number, up to 3,000, of ISIL recruits have been from Tunisia. The Tunisian ISIL recruit rate is generally thought to be the highest of all, more than the Saudi estimate that tops off at about 2,000 – 2,500.

Yet, Tunisia is the most secular and least fundamentalist of all Arab societies, with the possible exception of Lebanon. This undermines Friedman’s claim that cultural and religious extremism in a given society, in this case the Saudi one, especially as promoted by culturally hegemonic national institutions, provides a strong correlation to participation in radical movements. The problem might be correctly seen, as he also suggests, in a global Islamic context, with Saudi and other promotion of intolerance and extremism as an important historical factor in creating the current wave of violent radicalism. But if ISIL recruitment draws most heavily on Tunisia, closely followed by Saudi Arabia — two countries in most ways on the opposite ends of the Arab cultural and political spectrum — that strongly suggests that there are broader explanations than a specific national cultural and religious atmosphere for the appeal of terrorism.

Another New York Times article from November 20 made the case even more explicitly. Algerian writer Kamel Daoud suggested that Saudi Arabia is simply “better dressed and neater but does the same things” as ISIL. The author sneaks in a criticism of the United States, which goes all but unnoticed by most readers, suggesting, “Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.” In other words, the United States bears half the responsibility for the ISIL phenomenon (naturally, given Orientalist discourse, the penetrating, male half of this unholy coupling), while Saudi Arabia must accept the other half (the nurturing, gestating female role, the mother of all badness).

Many other authors have made similar claims, although few as eloquently and incisively as Daoud. However, in almost all political or strategic contexts, Saudi Arabia is simply not comparable to, let alone the equivalent of, ISIL. Saudi Arabia is, and has been ever since the establishment of the modern state following the First World War, staunchly a status quo power. It has been strongly aligned with the regional and global order, and with the maintenance in the Middle East and around the world of things as they are. It is one of the strongest defenders in the Middle East of the state system that Europeans imposed on the Middle East through the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. And its foreign policy has been, until very recently, characterized almost entirely by caution, and deference to the global system as a guarantor of its interests and local and regional stability. It’s also been a steadfast ally of the West, in particular the United States.

In the international context, Saudi Arabia could not possibly be further away from ISIL’s perspectives and policies. ISIL is undoubtedly far more hostile to the Westphalian international order (the system of sovereign states that accept the legitimacy of each other’s authority within their own recognized territory, without intervention except in the most extreme circumstances) than even the most extreme right- or left-wing countries, and major political groups, of the 20th century. ISIL utterly rejects the international state system. Its apocalyptic ideology, which it seems to actually believe, makes it the only even somewhat significant international actor in living memory to reject every single aspect of the state system, not to mention the regional order in the Middle East. Most maverick states and movements have sought to join (if even on their own extremist terms), not to obliterate, the international system. ISIL defines itself in the strictest opposition to this system.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, found even the quasi-socialist Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser to be intolerably threatening and revolutionary. It has also viewed the rise of ultra-right pseudo-theological extremism of al-Qaeda with increasing horror over the past two decades. These two very different regional political phenomena, among many others, were identified as threatening by Riyadh because they challenged core beliefs and policies of the Saudi state, most importantly its commitment to the existing regional and international order and the status quo generally. ISIL’s international policies and practices thus could not be further from those of Saudi Arabia. The former seeks to destroy the regional, and ultimately international, state system in all its aspects. The latter is committed to preserving them as its main foreign policy goal, at virtually all costs.

Moreover, the moral equivalency between ISIL and Saudi Arabia suggested by both Friedman and Daoud, and the many other writers in the West and the Arab world who have made similar points, is unconvincing. It’s simply not true that Saudi Arabia behaves like ISIL. Saudi Arabia does not traffic in sex slaves or advocate and practice the reestablishment of slavery. Saudi Arabia does not massacre Shia Muslims and other religious minorities. Saudi Arabia does not flood the internet with snuff videos or set fire to captured soldiers. Saudi Arabia does not operate a giant, international program of kidnapping, extortion, and hostage ransoming, with execution as the only alternative to payment. Saudi Arabia does not send its key operatives to massacre civilians in Paris or Beirut, or plant bombs in airplanes. And on and on.

Any comparison that doesn’t acknowledge these and countless other obvious distinctions between the ideology and conduct of ISIL and Saudi Arabia is cherry-picking the crucial facts. It fails to acknowledge key differences where it identifies some troubling similarities (more on this below). This trivializes the horrors inflicted by ISIL and exaggerates legitimate concerns about some Saudi policies and practices. Thereby, it dilutes the uniqueness of ISIL’s truly extraordinary moral transgressions, which has very few, if any, genuine historical analogies in the recent past. By doing so, it undermines purposeful criticism of those aspects of Saudi policy, culture, and officially sanctioned religious practices and discourse by caricaturing a serious critique.

The death sentence on charges of “apostasy” recently handed out to the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh — a lifelong resident of Saudi Arabia who has been a major and highly constructive player in the Saudi cultural and arts scene — is only the latest example of indefensibly harsh conduct by the Saudi judicial system towards what, in most societies, would be seen as at worst minor transgressions, and in many cases perfectly legitimate conduct.

Other instances include a long list of draconian arrests, prosecutions and sentences against poets and bloggers — often on charges of “apostasy,” which are strictly incompatible with basic international norms regarding freedom of speech, religion, and conscience. Other cases have involved those accused of “sorcery,” or possession of alcohol or drugs, or other offenses that normative international standards hold to be legitimate behavior; moderately transgressive conduct not warranting capital punishment or anything similar; or criminal charges that appear, even to most other Muslim and Arab judicial systems, strikingly pre-modern in their essential categories (such as witchcraft). Capital charges and death penalties have also been issued against Shia activists from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province that many observers have suggested were motivated by political animus, sectarian bias, or both.

Amnesty International reports that 151 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia in 2015, the highest number since 1995. “So far in 2015, on average, one person has been executed every other day,” Amnesty says. The fact that the United States joins Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China as countries in which capital punishment is most frequently practiced, and in which juveniles can be sentenced to death in some circumstances, doesn’t go very far in mitigating the impact this record is having on Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.

ISIL has gone to great lengths to make itself synonymous with draconian punishments and strict adherence to a radically repressive and brutal interpretation of Sharia law. Its extreme policies and practices are unrecognizable to most Muslims, both in terms of present-day standards and in the conceptualization of the Islamic past. The problem for Saudi Arabia is that were one to scan the Muslim world for analogies to ISIL’s beliefs and conduct, one of the most obvious comparisons must be with the official and quasi-official interpretations of Islam that have been enacted, and, indeed, promoted by Saudi Arabia. On this point, both Friedman and Daoud are irrefutably correct. Saudi Arabia has embraced and powerfully promoted a “Wahhabi” model of Islamic governance, jurisprudence, and social order that is both the closest thing to ISIL’s misrule, and undoubtedly the primary source for some of the core ideas that ISIL is implementing in the areas that have the misfortune to fall under their control.

Of course this doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia equals ISIL, for the numerous, substantial and serious reasons explained above. But it would be dishonest and pointless to deny that a disquietingly significant portion of the interpretation of Islam that ISIL is enacting can, in their origins, indeed be traced to Saudi preachers, theologians, thinkers, and even official agencies. Friedman and Daoud are also both correct to point to the highly negative influence that official and quasi-official Saudi agencies have had in spreading intolerant and extreme interpretations of Islam throughout the Muslim world, from Arab countries to Pakistan to Indonesia. This has inadvertently helped prime angry young men for ISIL or al-Qaeda recruitment and proven a profound problem for not just Saudi Arabia and its allies, but for the whole world. Until Saudi Arabia truly reverses these policies and begins to address the problems they have exacerbated, the kingdom is open to legitimate criticism regarding the origins and spread of extremist views among Muslim radicals throughout the world.

But that actually may indeed be happening. In the November 25 edition of the New York Times, Friedman has a follow-up article describing his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, which apparently forced him to reconsider some of his earlier assertions. Friedman says he “ran into something I didn’t know: Something is stirring in this society. This is not your grandfather’s Saudi Arabia.” As he describes the changes he found “stirring” in Saudi society, Friedman concludes, “There are still dark corners here exporting intolerant ideas. But they seem to now have real competition from both the grassroots and a leadership looking to build its legitimacy around performance, not just piety or family name.” None of this, he hastens to add, negates the damage done both internally and throughout the Arab world by the spread of intolerant ideas from Saudi Arabia in past decades, or the fact that some aspects of this continue. Saudi Arabia is changing, but it isn’t unrecognizable or completely transformed. But Friedman has significantly pulled back from the perspective expressed in his September column that was not only almost entirely negative but also really did equate Saudi Arabia with ISIL. Clearly this comparison couldn’t survive an honest assessment of the recent visit to the kingdom, because it’s such a stretch.

The fashionable equation of Saudi Arabia and ISIL, particularly post-Paris, is powerfully provocative. But on most basic and political grounds it’s deeply misleading. This discourse is likely to continue, and may well gain strength despite its weaknesses, as long as Saudi judicial authorities continue to behave towards certain categories of accused “criminals” with the severity and heavy handedness they have been imposing of late, and, in many ways, since the founding of the modern kingdom. This is particularly problematic for Saudi Arabia with regard to accused who are charged with what are perceived by most outsiders, including much of the Arab and Islamic worlds, to be political and cultural activities and expression that should be protected rather than prosecuted, or relatively minor offenses that can and should be dealt with far from the executioner’s block or the flogging post.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.