Some years ago, Saudi Arabia proscribed its citizens from marrying Pakistanis and three other nationalities. No doubt the government had its reasons, good or bad, but whatever the nature of the apparent ‘malice’, such were the comments thrown around in Pakistani social media circles, we should take this opportunity to pause and reflect on how such a decision was possible in the first place.
This is not merely a case of a lover feeling jilted at the alter. It goes to the heart of how so many Pakistanis imagine their ‘Islamic’ identity via Muslim nationalities that have been less accommodating of a shared fraternal bond with ordinary Pakistanis (barring perhaps Turkey). In this respect, Saudi Arabia has assumed a special significance.
For a lot of Muslims and not just Pakistanis, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or the area the desert Kingdom occupies is the cradle of a shared faith as old as the human species. This bond of universal faith, as it is imagined, radiates from a defined centre of gravity that is so strong and natural that it automatically binds Muslim peoples together. This is no small feat. We are talking about almost two billion people wherever they are, whatever their backgrounds, as one ‘community’ united on the basis of reciprocal relations of rights and duties. Obviously this is an ‘ideal’, and seldom will you encounter Muslims living up to this great expectation en mass. But for a devout sub-section of the Pakistani population, ideologically-minded, and in many other Muslim countries, they imagine such an ‘ideal’ as being part of their very fabric.
It doesn’t take a genius to expose the fallacy of such myth-making.
All that a person needs to do is cast his eyes on the modern Muslim world to realise that there are no bonds of universal faith. The Islamic world is a complex ethnic and linguistic terrain that belies simplistic redactions of Muslims as the constituent parts of a coherent Muslim ‘Ummah’ or fraternity. Saudis are no more the brothers and sisters of Pakistanis as are ‘Arabs’ the brethren of Iranians, Turks or Afghans. Not one of these supposedly generic groups is itself uniform and self-sustaining, but comprises of huge internal diversity and dare I say ‘cleavages’.
Fellow Sunnis are as distant to one another as they are with Shias who have their own internal fault-lines. There are other cleavages, but these two ‘cleavages’ are imagined as a quintessentially inherent fault-line built into the body-politik of Muslims. It is greatly exaggerated by impresionistic commentators unaware of other fault-lines.
But what does this mean in practical terms?
And how should Pakistanis understand this diversity outside religious sensibilities?
Put simply, Muslims as a collective are not a self-sustaining fraternity. They never have been and they never will be. The Muslim ‘faith’ can no more bind diverse peoples together than ‘nationalism’, ‘ethnicity’ or ‘social class’ can make people feel genuine bonds of unity in the face of other cleavages. The thought of holding hands, to pick a metaphor popular in my country of birth, where fellow-adherents sing ‘Kumbaya my Lord’ as they ‘tango’ into the sunset is as alien to Muslims as it is to ‘Europeans’, ‘Christians’, ‘godless’ Communists or Spanish-speaking ‘Latinos’.
For Muslims, putting the romanticism of a universal Ummah aside just for one moment, its ideological overtures do make for great propaganda, and that is exactly what has happened with the emergence of political Islam at the turn of the 20th century. The actual reality of trying to live up to such a ‘myth’ where ‘Muslims genuinely feel the pain of other Muslims’ is less benign and less soothing. Both historical and present conflicts in the ‘Muslim World’ expose the fallacy of such an idea.
And so whenever devout Muslims particularly ‘cosmopolitan’ ones ponder the nature of inequality, discrimination and persecution in the ‘Islamic World’ from the vantage of their privileged lives, they should ask themselves, why they thought they would be immune from such ‘infractions’ simply because they genuinely subscribe to the values of Muslim Brotherhood?
As an imagined fraternity, it is natural for members to feel outraged by their sense of humiliation at the hands of coreligionists. But this is all the more reason to ponder why they ever thought that they were different from other ‘fraternities’. Muslims have never formed a special ‘fraternity’ of unrelated peoples were its individual members have been treated as absolute ‘equals’.
I like to think of this phenomenon as the ‘Muslim-Ummah’ syndrome. Its roots are buried deep in a political belief system masquerading as a religious instinct. It is the net-product of the modern world, and not the ancient world from which Islam has its origin.
In the specific case of Pakistanis and their 20th century cleavage from non-Muslim Indians, they were sold a lie about their past, identity and corresponding social and political priorities. The political movement behind Pakistan, an essentially secular and non-religious agenda, sought to misconstrue religious differences between Hindus and Muslims as proof of separate national identities. The popular motif, “Pakistan ka matlab kiya, la liaha illalllah“, what is the meaning of Pakistan; there is no good but Allah!” is one the most abiding lies being perpetrated against an uncritical mass of Pakistani patriots. Some extremist religious groups in Pakistan find the statement blasphemous. Decades on from that fateful myth-making, that earlier proposition has given birth to all manner of false priorities.
For Pakistanis in the Diaspora trying to make sense of their Islamic ‘identity’, this has meant assuming somewhat superficially a ‘Muslim-identity’ persona wedded increasingly to the contours of an austere interpretation of prescriptive Islam that needs Saudi-petrol dollars to project itself on countless Muslim societies. This isn’t by choice but because of the ubiquitous reach of the Saudi Ministry for Religious Affairs that pumps billions of dollars promoting an interpretation of Islam that owes its existence and sustenance to the Saudi State. The net-result for incumbents is then confused as an unquestionable universal identity divorced from the actual reality of the Muslim World.
Because we can categorise ourselves almost exclusively on the basis of the ‘Muslim’ label today has meant that the corresponding ‘identity’ has taken on an impression that it does not deserve. Muslims of previous generations did not go about their business self-affirming as “the Muslims“; Islam for the majority of our forbears in predominantly Muslim societies was not a ‘tribal identity’ but a religious belief that connected them with devotional rituals, the ‘heavens’ and the afterlife. It lacked almost every hallmark of today’s political Islam. Today’s ideologically-minded Muslims flout their faith as a means of making a point of their ‘identity’, they are less devotion-inclined and more committed to belonging to the “Muslim Tribe”. This version of Islam is at odds with centuries of Muslim orthoproxy. It has become disconnected with ‘personal and social devotion to a sense of righteousness and virtue but obsesses about belonging to a universal but imagined Muslim Ummah separate from the universal tribe of non-Muslims.
One severe handicap that comes with thinking like this means we no longer understand ‘victimhood’ when the perpetrators are our ‘co-religionists’. Trivial as some may consider the Saudi/Pakistani marriage-ban, highly emotive for others, it is a good starting point to analyse the nature of inequality in the Muslim world. To be able to contemplate ‘injustices’ and ‘inequalities’ in the Muslim World, we need to first understand the wider context that underpins such complex social and political realities beyond the imagined bonds of a universal-faith.
In concrete social terms, this would mean that, for instance, some ‘Pakistanis’ genuinely feel aggrieved at their undignified treatment at the hands of, say, their ‘Arab’ coreligionists whilst indifferent to the same level of discrimination in Pakistan. By the standard of any international development barometer Pakistan is not the bastion of religious, social and political egalitarianism. Since its founding, it never has been and I doubt this is going to change anytime soon. One can extrapolate this ‘norm’ to include entire swathes of the Muslim world. The fact that some Pakistanis feel sufficiently aggrieved to actually voice their public humiliation at the marriage-ban is because of the lofty place reserved for the ‘Arab-Muslim’ in their imagination.
Being ‘Arab’ in this sense has no connection with the purveyors of an ‘Arab’ ethno-national identity. Rather, it is the impulse to locate in the vagaries of an Arab ‘past’ a much older but primordial seed that is somehow linked with the emergence of Islam as a universal faith. The interconnection between imagining ‘Arabness’ in this sense is rooted in the idea of making visible one’s faith and so young Muslims in Pakistan and particularly more so in the diaspora feel a strong urge to dress like ‘Arabs’ – in its vague conventional nomenclature – in the mistaken belief that they are emulating the Prophet of Islam, the ‘Arabian’ or ‘Arab’ Apostle sent to the world.
The idea is a simple one, Muslims everywhere must emulate the prophet – how one actually determines that priority in historical terms is simply glossed over – empowering the modern exemplars of the ‘Muslim-Arab’ identity to have the final say on all things ‘Muslim’ by simple deference to scriptural texts. “We know best, because we are ‘Arabs’ and the Prophet was an Arab!”. Many non-Arabs can attest to being told by their Arab peers, perhaps even once in their lifetime, something akin to the remarks, “don’t preach to me about Islam, okay, I’m an Arab” or “I know more about Islam than you do because I’m an Arab!” and even “at least I’m an Arab!”
Prejudice aside, history teaches us something altogether different. For one thing, the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century CE didn’t go about their business self-affirming as ‘Arabs’!
There is an important caveat to this wider claim when we do think of an Arab-Muslim symbiosis today. As was the case in previous centuries, there has never been a universal ‘Arab’ identity that strictly corresponds to the world of the ‘Arab’ or the ‘pan-Arab’. The heterogeneity of the Arab world reflected in its huge diversity cuts across more than 20 Arab ‘nationalities’ across an expansive geographical space. The diversity is breathtaking and self-explanatory for even the most apathetic of casual observers.
Linguistically, we are speaking of separate languages with a remote connection with ‘Classical Arabic’ that is deemed the most prestigious of Arabic varieties because of its connection with the Qur’an. Without 1) the standardising influence of classical Arabic and 2) modern Arabic cinema or the particular genre with roots in Egypt, Arabs would not be able to understand one another had they relied on their dialects alone. Ethnically and culturally, we are dealing with separate peoples who merely adopted the ‘Arabic’ language in its various evolving varieties during different historical periods.
And so for the purposes of my discussion, I merely use the term ‘Arab’ conventionally and non-descriptively for attitudes that have at their root an attachment with Saudi Islam in its unmistakably Wahhabi guise.
To be sure, the ensuing attitudes are not borne of an inferiority-complex although one does come across Pakistanis behaving obsequiously with their admired ‘peers’, or more correctly ‘superiors’. The ‘Arabs’ on the receiving end of this flattery become empowered in ways that are completely unhealthy, and to be frank, undeserving of their projected ‘status’.
Fortunately, for the majority of Pakistanis, this ’emulation of peers’ has a religious mandate. They think that by dressing in the customary ‘Arab i.e., ‘Saudi’ style, they are in some way, shape or form fulfilling a religious injunction, that they are not merely emulating ‘Arabs’ but rather assuming pophetic mannerisms of a man who did not merely happen to be an Arab but was destined to be an ‘Arab’. They are very misguided when they try to understand that history through the priorities of an ideological narrative and its temporal label.
The prophetic ‘Sunnah’ in its cultural or ethnic residues given the locational underpinnings of its 7th century context (‘Hijaz’) was not strictly conterminous with a) the evolving cultural norms of the Bedouin ‘Arabs’ of Central Arabia (‘Najd’) and, b) their modern purveyors.
These norms are now being presented as the unbroken continuation of the Prophetic tradition through a strongly Saudi veneer. This view is simply wrong. Some of our earliest ‘Muslims’ in interacting with the peoples they conquered consciously adopted their cultural dress, mannerisms and even governance-systems. This doesn’t bode well for meaningful but naive Muslims with an ahistorical understanding of history and ‘Islamic’ fashions. On encountering the ‘Sassanians’ in the direction of what is today’ Iran’ the Muslim-‘Arabs’ for their part, began to increasingly admire the ‘high-brow’ culture on show. They adopted these practises. Ironically, it is the cultural practises of ‘converted foreigners’ that contemporary Muslims are now emulating as the basis of a ‘pristine’ faith. This is akin to thinking of minarets as an essential architectural feature of Mosques out of a puritan desire to be true to an imagined heritage unaware that the feature in question was borrowed from the Byzantine Christians from the direction of modern-day Turkey.
And so when I speak of this ‘mind-set’ or ‘outlook’, I am making explicit reference to a particular set of historical circumstances that go beyond actual acts of imitation understood in religious terms. I am speaking of complex realities that can help shed light on our modern-day proclivities and anxieties. When I speak of the ‘Muslim-Ummah’ syndrome and its reliance on ‘Arabness’, I am not speaking of ‘peoples’ loosely connected under the political banner of ‘pan-Arabism’. I am not even speaking of ‘Saudi’ citizens, many of whom are themselves ‘victims’ of a religious hegemony with roots in a particular part of the Kingdom. In fact, one can extrapolate this rule to even include members of the Saudi Royal Family, many of whom are embarrassed by the Kingdom’s continued entente with a religious clergy that is fast becoming a liability for them.
In any case to understand how skewed Pakistani anxieties are when they bemoan humiliation at the hands of ‘co-religionists’ in Saudi Arabia, we need to understand the actual history that gave rise to the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a nation-state. We also need to understand the emergence of Wahhabism as a sectarian cleavage; ‘pan-Arabism’ as a nationalistic secular ideology; and the ‘Muslim-Ummah syndrome’ as an unintended consequence of a very troubling history. Pakistan’s emergence on the global scene as the first ‘nation-state’ purportedly created in the name of Islam, a political project that is erroneously misconstrued as a religious one, should also be understood to this earlier backdrop.
These developments are all the by-products of a colonial timeline which in its final death throes gave way to an inter-dependent and ‘chaotic’ political order still reeling from that legacy. When we do think of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ naively in universal terms, not fully appreciating this history, we make the mistake of locating victims on one plain and perpetrators on another. Not all victims are treated ‘equally’ and not all perpetrators are judged the same whatever the ‘shared’ identities of the subjects involved. If ever the mantra ‘my friend’s enemy is my enemy‘ can be shown to be patently false, one should look at the Muslim world where duplicitous bedfellows push their own agendas.
Familiarising ourselves with this history even briefly and the various cleavages borne of its timeline will allow Pakistanis to understand the nature of political priorities that do not necessarily involve them in the greater scheme of things. Hopefully they will see the futility of wrongly imagining their religious sensibilities, if not confusing them with issues of identity-politics, especially in the shadows of ‘people’ who have their own priorities. Ultimately, they will understand that this ‘complex’ borne of the Muslim-Ummah syndrome is a false conscience that disconnects them from their own society, heritage and priorities.
Some Background Facts; the emergence of the Saudi State
Under the leadership of the 18th century iconoclast Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab (d.1792), a puritan ‘fundamentalist’ movement was born. Its mission was simple, the purification of the Muslim faith from excesses that had accrued over the centuries corrupting the true and pristine teachings of Islam. Its adherents considered themselves to be the only true Muslims. Everyone else that fell short of ‘the true austere faith’ was considered heretical (‘Zindeeq’) or worse, apostate (‘Murtad’). In practical terms this meant giving license to murdering entire populations, enslaving women and appropriating their possessions as the spoils of war. Crucially for our analysis, the movement burst onto the international scene at a critical juncture when the hegemonic power of the Ottoman ‘Caliphs’ was gradually waning. This was also a period of European Expansionism.
Up until the point of the Caliphate’s formal abolition (1924), the majority of ‘Sunni’ Muslims worldwide, and by this I mean their ruling elites, deferred to the symbolic authority of the Ottoman Caliphs who were the figureheads of Sunni Islam. The ‘Wahhabi’ puritan movement for its part, located in the central belt of the Arabian Desert peripheral to areas under the suzerainty of the Caliphs, thought otherwise. And so they attacked the ‘apostate’ and ‘heretical’ Muslims with mixed results. The spread of the movement was much in part due to an alliance fostered by the founder with an ambitious chieftain of a Bedouin tribe from Central Arabia named Muhammad ibn Sa’ud (d.1765). As was customary in those days, the alliance was nurtured and sealed through marriage; Ibn Sa’ud married the daughter of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab.
In its formative years, the fortunes of the movement were short-lived. Its peculiar penchant for extreme barbarity even from the moral standards of the time was roundly condemned. Violence and cruelty were typically characteristic of the movement, launched well beyond central Arabia, and into areas as far as Iraq. Shia shrines were looted and destroyed, Sufis were killed imbuing the externally-ascribed ‘Wahhabi’ label with its pejorative connotations that still resonates with us day.
Adherents of the original movement self-ascribed as either the ‘Ikhwan’ (‘the ‘brotherhood’), or ‘al-Muwahhidun’, ‘the upholders of God’s oneness or unity’. Then as now, the core cadre always shirked away from the pejorative characterisations forced on them arguing that the claims against them were propaganda.
To be sure the movement was not unique. It had a powerful precursor in the form of the much earlier ‘Kharijite’ formations, a political cleavage that occurred some decades after the demise of the Prophet (657 CE) which gave us our first proper sectarian schism in Islam. Shortly after his death, the Prophet’s companions fought amongst themselves to appoint a ‘legitimate’ successor. From this vortex of chaos emerged the Kharijites. The actual term was coined by opponents and simply meant ‘those who left the group’. The Khawarij like their latter-day successors self-ascribed through their own labels.
For Muslim critics of both movements, the Wahhabis and the Khawarij originated from the same place forewarned by prophecy. In the imagination of Sunnis and Shias alike, the uncompromising literalist trends of both movements and their fanatical use of violence were two facets of an identical ‘evil’. The Central-Arabian region of ‘Najd’ was explicitly condemned by the Prophet of Islam as being the place from whence ‘the horn of the devil’ (‘qarn al-shaytan’) shall arise and ‘sedition’ (‘fitna’). In another hadith, the purported followers of this fanaticism were labelled as ‘the dogs of hell’ (‘kilab ul-nar’). ‘Wahhabi’ apologists all too aware of this history have sought to re-interpret these ‘utterances’ by relocating ‘Najd’ in distant Iraq. Their disavowals are quite telling of those much older sensibilities.
The cause of the earlier prophetic condemnation could be accounted for by the unruly nature of the Bedouin tribes that lived in this vast expanse and the problems they posed for the prophetic mission. We learn from Islamic ‘historical’ accounts that many ‘pretenders’ to prophecy originated from this region. These earliest of disruptive elements were firmly located in the Najd that bordered the Hijaz and not the ‘Najd’ of far-away Iraq, as our Wahhabi apologists would have us believe today.
With the advent of Imperial Briton as a major colonial power during the 19th century, the ‘Wahhabi’ movement in its political formation was co-opted to further a number of important geo-political priorities. The Saud tribe was patronised as a regional counter-weight against a declining Ottoman power. This was a purely political entente and its colonial architects didn’t care for the fanatical elements (the Ikhwan) embedded in Ibn Saud’s tribe.
Other regional actors and potentates were also used in this way and many of them eventually fought each other to further their own parochial agendas under the patronage of competing European powers that backtracked on earlier promises.
It is within this context that we have the genesis of the modern Saudi State, one that becomes gradually but increasingly important to the affairs of a decolonised and conflict-prone Muslim world. With the discovery of vast oil reserves to the backdrop of emergent and chaotic pan-Arabist ‘Republics’, each and in varying degrees swimming on divergent courses of ‘Arab’ awakening, the now vastly enriched Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies emerged unscathed. They now had the necessary wherewithal financially to consolidate their own power-base and dynastic continuity.
For the intellectual heirs of pan-Arabism, a political ideology that evolved during the murky world of European colonialism in opposition to the ‘non-Arab’ ‘Turks’ of the Ottoman order, these monarchies were considered remnants of the old colonialism. They were loathed as natural targets. As regicide quickly became a common occurrence within the region usually at the behest of military strongmen, the new ‘populist’ order was anything but socially and politically benign. The autocratic dictatorships that followed, with their varied brands of socialism were for practical purposes totalitarian and dynastic.
But what exactly is Pan-Arabism and how is it different to an ethnic Arab identity Briefly speaking, Pan Arabism was a nationalist movement that sought to unite ‘Arabs’ politically on the grounds that they shared a common ‘Arab’ culture. The initial protagonists of this proposition were in fact Lebanese Christians living amongst a largely Muslim-Arabic speaking population indifferent to ideas of a shared fraternity rooted in ‘language’ let alone ‘culture’. Jurji Zaydan (1861 – 1914) is credited with being the first Pan-Arab protagonist and his novels popularised the idea of the Arab hero, from which we can trace the romanticism of a later ‘Arab’ identity.
Prior to this, ‘Arab’ Muslims for their part, incredibly diverse peoples and tribes, had never self-affirmed as ‘Arabs’ but through religion which inadvertently discounted bonds of fraternity with Christians. These ideas were later adopted by secular Muslims opposed to the Ottomans who were gradually losing their territories to the European Powers.
This was a period of seismic change in the region, and the ideas borne of the early Pan-Arabists became increasingly attractive for conservative Muslim rulers committed to forging their own monarchies as remnants of the older ‘Ottoman’ tribal entente. Although language was now the symbolic denominator in the fight against the ‘non-Arab’ ‘Turks’ who were being demonised by some quarters as usurpers of ‘Arab-Muslim’ power, culturally and intellectually, the ruling Arab elites had different political priorities. But whenever we describe such realities within the context of pan-Arabist ambitions, we’re not speaking of ordinary Arabs, but rather political elites and their votaries.
From this fault line, we had two distinct cleavages. The one was committed to Pan-Arabism via a socialist agenda. The Ba’ath party as it emerged, occupied this particular space. The other was represented by regional potentates (aspiring Kings) who wanted to be the figureheads of an Arab nation committed to its own dynastic rule. These actors were more conservative than their secular socialist rivals and were keen to present themselves as obedient Muslims. Some succeeded in their quests to create their own kingdoms, others failed.
Eventually this fault-line put the secular Republics and the surviving Monarchies as they both became entrenched in their parts of the ‘new’ ‘Arab world on a collision course. It created tensions between the large ‘Kingdom’ of Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies with the Ba’athis of Iraq, Syria and Egypt who had increasingly monopolised the Pan-Arabist agenda. Pan-Arabists were keen to promote unity among ordinary ‘Arabs’ across North Africa and West Asia on the basis of socialist principles. The latter had pockets of enthusiastic followers in almost every Arab country including the monarchies. They were also strongly opposed to continued western interference in their countries and viewed disparagingly the monarchies as western outposts.
These views have seldom changed today.
The most successful exponent of Pan-Arabism was perhaps the late Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser [1918 – 1970] who advocated Arab unification as ‘state-policy’. But forlornly for the pan-Arabist intelligentsia, their ideological cause faltered and their chief protagonists in one way or another were dispatched. The reasons proffered for their failures are far-ranging and varied but suffice to say that the Arab world of the pan-Arabists is a romantic myth of political exigencies that failed to sweep the ethnic loyalties of vastly divergent populations.
The Arab monarchies on the other hand that survived the pan-Arabist dreams of a unified Arab world particularly in the Arabian peninsula are still no more closer to immortality with the demise of their ‘horizontal’ foes. They now have to contend with bastions of dissidents from within their own native populations, what I call the ‘vertical foes’.
Western governments have more or less helped prop up these dictatorships which accounts of the anti-western feeling in the region.
Saudi Arabia and its ‘Vertical Foes’
The modern nation state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was consecrated in 1924 with the explicit support of the European imperial powers. Ever since its birth successive Kings have practically monopolised power on the basis of tribal paradigms that are anachronistic and at odds with modern precepts of democratic governance.
There is a special place reserved for the religious elite within this entente as part of a much earlier tribal precedent. It guarantees a space for the descendants of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab (now distantly related to the secular patrons of the State) and their symbolic heirs to shape and mould the nation’s religious persona. Ordinary citizens are shut out from this power-sharing arrangement but luckily for the State’s enforcers, its reserve of petrodollars and its geo-political importance for the western powers has meant ‘dissent’ can be mitigated through cash-incentives and ‘welfare’ programmes, harsh ‘security’ crack-downs and casual human rights violations.
Western governments reliant on Saudi petrol have typically looked the other way. In fact Saudi Arabia is considered a trusted alley of the United States. The European powers similarly shy away from vocally criticising the Saudi State although we are frequently reminded by our politicians that they do indeed criticise their Saudi counterparts in private. Judging by the Kingdom’s crackdown on human rights activists, it would appear that that criticism has not yet sketched itself onto the Saudi conscience.
In strictly religious terms this has meant, both directly and indirectly, giving the Wahhabi religious elite a free hand in propagating its austere fundamentalist Islam. After the Iranian (‘Shia’) revolution of 1979, this rather crude and literalist redaction of mainstream Islam was anxiously promoted to every corner of the Muslim world. Earlier, the oil embargo of 1973 which drove the price of oil through the roof bolstered the capacity of the Kingdom to fund transglobal projects to the tune of billions of dollars. The late Ayatollah Khomeini having overthrown another of the region’s monarchical despots, this time a non-Arab, threatened to export his ‘Muslim’ revolution to neighbouring countries with an implicit focus on the Gulf Kingdoms.
The Arab ‘Sunni’ Monarchies were taken aback and became increasingly paranoid.
The Saudis were quite mindful of their large Shia population ‘squatting’ on their frontier with Iran, where incidentally the vast majority of their oil operations were located. And so began a phase of religious proselytization whose unintended results we are still reeling from.
The Saudis pumped huge sums of money into religious and dubiously-dubbed ‘welfare’ projects that outstripped comparatively the ideological output of their rivals in Tehran. Literature through the state-financed ‘Dar al-Salam’ publishing house and a network of subsidised bookshops were made available in countries across the globe effectively flooding the Muslim book-market with cheap but flashy copies of Wahhabi writings. The literature comprised mostly of dumbed-down catechisms and polemics for popular consumption that didn’t require much by way of intellectual insight. One of the not so inconsequential teachings of this propaganda was the idea that obedience to one’s genuine ‘Muslim’ rulers was an article of faith. Conveniently, for the Arab Monarchies, Shias were not considered Muslims.
Anti-Tehran anxieties also formed the bedrock of the Kingdom’s support for secular Iraq’s invasion of Iran, an otherwise natural foe. This ‘counterintuitive’ move drew in support from the smaller monarchies. The inter-‘Muslim’ conflict that followed was fought on different fronts and with the assistance of regional and international proxies lasting almost 9 years with unprecedented loss of life. It was couched in religious symbolism; the input of Saudi Arabia’s ‘official clergy’ was essential to the demonising of the ‘Shia’ ‘non-Muslim’ ‘other’ in the quest for regional hegemony.
The Americans firmly backed the Iraqi-Saudi entente.
The strategic importance of the relationship between state actors and state-endorsed religious elites is obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity of the region. It perpetuates the status quo as the religious elites teach that obedience to Sunni rulers is a condition of faith thus inoculating a mass of aggrieved Muslims from ever rising up.
But, whenever the Saudi royal family has needed to preserve its privileged existence against dissidents militarily, it has sought the help of western powers. At various times this has meant turning to French paratroopers to quash a rebellion in the sacred precincts of the Ka’ba, or offering permanent bases to American troops. Whatever the moral failings of such a position religiously speaking, the Kingdom can rely on its cadre of state-endorsed Wahhabi clerics to protect its interests in religious terms. ‘Fatwas’ or legal pronouncements endorsing the official Saudi position, uttered from the mouths of its most sacred personalities have always been trumped by the secular realities underpinning the State.
Dissenting clerics who find the actions of the Kingdom reprehensible are either put under house arrest or imprisoned. If they happen to be Shia, they are executed, no questions asked. Expectedly, this persisting entente preserves the religious order without which ‘Wahhabism’ would have been nothing more than one muffled voice in a whimpering cacophony of sectarian disquiet. Failing this the Kingdom has the military support of the USA of whose economy the Saudis have been gradually buying significant chunks, on some accounts totalling 7 percent of the country’s total GDP output.
This Saudi-American relationship is thus a symbiotic one that has moved on from the earlier Anglo-Saudi partnership. It accounts for huge imports and exports in either direction. The military arsenal of the Saudi state – absolutely committed to its own preservation – is sourced from America to the tune of tens of billions of dollars annually. In America’s direction, a guaranteed stream of cheap oil flows unhindered by the ubiquitous anti-American hatred in the region that sees in this ‘Great Satan’ the actual power behind the Saudi State. In the past unexpected spikes in the price of oil have been devastating not just for America but for western economies. History has eloquently borne out this fault-line and makes for good reading.
Intellectual honesty demands that we locate America’s cosy relationship with the Saudi royal family within the context of this realpolitik. It would be foolhardy to expect the American establishment with its lucrative business interests and geo-political priorities to be honest-brokers in the region. It may sing the praises of human rights and democracy to the rapturous applause of human rights organisations internationally but it will quickly turn the other cheek when this particular ‘Arab’ ally brutalises its own population. An Arab Spring may have been welcomed in Libya and Egypt to a fading chorus of western cheers but seldom will this prospect extend to the oil-rich Gulf States.
Saudi Arabia and the ‘Sunni’ Gulf Monarchies are positively off-bounds for any redemptive democratic awakening. America and their western allies are not predisposed to ushering in more radically conservative elements from the actively mobile oppositions in these countries even when they carry large democratic mandates. This new fault-line is the unintended consequence of the Monarchy’s promotion of its own intolerant brand of Islam globally for regional hegemony through the auspices of state-endorsed and pliable clerics. The literalism of Wahhabism and its uncompromising positions have created blow-back in Saudi Arabia where hardened extremists view ‘government-clerics’ as stooges of the establishment.
As the law of unintended consequences has the habit of producing outcomes no one likes, it has meant serious implications for American ‘foreign-policy’ duplicity. The drawbacks, perhaps better described as side-effects of the Saudi-American entente have included the emergence of Usama Bin Laden and the global Jihadist movements, informal transmutable structures and entities that seem to be popping up in the remotest of places. Paradoxically, had it not been for the Kingdom’s funding of fundamentalist redactions of Islam at a time it was mired in the Cold War, sending its home-grown radicals to fight ‘atheists’ in Afghanistan, the phenomenon of militant Islam (in it’s clearly Wahhabi manifestations) would probably never have seen the day of light.
Ironically, the Arab Republics in an attempt to get rid of their own radicals – the product of Saudi ‘largess’ – similarly released their own Islamist dissidents from Prison and paid for their fares, one-way of course, to Afghanistan. It was hoped that the radicals would be sufficiently distracted by waging their holy war against the godless Communists to forget about their own ‘countries’. With any luck they would die martyrs for their cause in someone else’s backyard.
Decades on from the Cold War, those earlier militant movements have morphed into something more troubling. Western military intervention in the Arab world has not helped either. Western leaders have subsequently switched sides from supporting the Arab Dictators to ushering in religious ‘democrats’ from otherwise hostile populations with no experience of democracy. Many of these ‘elected’ democrats are corrupt and in Iraq, for instance, epitomise the mess created in the wake of failed western policies. Iraqi society has become increasingly polarised, as the new democratically elected ‘Shia’ majority consolidates its power to the exclusion of an embittered ‘Sunni’ minority that is increasingly turning to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states for ‘support’.
ISIS in many ways is telling and not for the reasons just cited. It reminds us of the earlier Kharijite and Wahhabi pogroms that devastated Muslim communities unfortunate to fall within their radar. Fired up by the zeal of their ‘corrective’ teachings and their love for booty quite literally, the acquisition of booty (‘ganimah’) was both material and human, they perpetrated some very heinous crimes. It took the Ottomans a number of years to extinguish the puritan carnage of the Wahhabis whilst, centuries earlier, the senior companions of the Prophet and members of the Prophet’s household lost their lives fighting the Kharijites. The Ottomans and the Prophet’s companions (‘Sahaba’) did however succeed eventually. The vicissitudes of those earlier epochs are now given a renewed lease of life in our present time courtesy of failed Saudi policies.
It would be fair to say, had the Saudi Kingdom not emerged, discovered oil and promoted its brand of religious extremism globally for myopic reasons, it is highly probable that we would not have had the ‘Pashtun’ Taliban morphing into the highly-hybridised ‘Wahhabi’ outfit it became. We would not have had 9/11; 7/7; the Madrid Bombings; the Bali bombings; the murder of Lee Rigby; Boko Haram; the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East; and a host of other typically combustible Wahhabi-inspired incidents. Even Sunni-Shia tensions in Pakistan, completely at variance with the subcontinent’s history of sectarian troubles, in all likelihood would not have occurred. This new ‘conflict’ really involves the targeting of Shia and minority communities by radical ‘Wahhabi’ outfits and a cyclical chain of copycat reprisals. We know categorically who the instigators are and from which direction they come.
Commentators and ‘experts’ predisposed to the Wahhabi narrative would argue otherwise, and understandably so. They would opt to lay the genesis of these interrelated events to ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamism’, a phenomenon that should not be confused with ‘Wahhabism’ whatever the use of the term ‘Salafi’. There are huge differences between Wahhabism and Salafism. The self-ascription ‘Salafi’ was co-opted by latter-day Wahhabis but originally employed by Muhammad Abduh [1849 – 1905] and his intellectual heirs, most notably Rashid Rida [1865 – 1935]. Abduh was an adherent of the great reformer Jamal al-Din Afghani [1838 – 1897].
Both reformers grew up during a period of Muslim decline. They witnessed first-hand huge social change and the anxiety on the part of establishment clerics witnessing the gradual overthrow of a political order, outwardly postulated on Islamic law – a ‘space’ the clerics wanted to occupy.
But, in practise, Muslim rulers did not defer to the clerics although they were very accommodating of them. Muslim rulers were also very generous and the clerics were very appreciative. As the power of the clerics waned, we had the emergence of western-educated ‘intellectuals’ challenging European colonialism, from which emerged the Pan-Arabists. These secular critics blamed the Islamic intellectual tradition for sapping Muslim societies of technological and scientific innovation. In the absence of similar ‘progress’ with that of the colonial powers, progressive Europhiles felt that their own societies would not be able to compete, let alone remove the yoke of colonialism. It is at this juncture that Afghani and Abduh enter the fray, both of whom were polyglots and conversant in European languages. Abduh and Afghani were also trained in the Islamic disciplinary traditions and were formidable personalities.
The original ‘Salafism’ of Abduh was a pioneering intellectual reformist teaching that had very little in common with the austere Wahhabism of ‘Najd’ and the later lay-teachings of the Egyptian Syed Qutb [1906 – 1966] and to some extent his Indian counterpart Abu’l Ala Maududi [1903 – 1979]. Both the lay-teachings of the Egyptian Salafists and Saudi Wahhabism, aside from ideological accretions that move between them have been implicated in the radicalisation of Muslims in many parts of the world. Today’s ‘Wahhabis’ like to present themselves as Salafis unaware of the term’s earlier trajectory.
The ‘Salafi’ label has been a malleable one though.
In its earliest years (outside the literal purport of its linguistic and scriptural meaning) it conveyed the sense of a rational reinterpretation of prescriptive ‘Islam’. The large body of classical juristic thought that underpinned the Sunni Orthodoxy of the time was considered stoic and outdated. And so the ‘reformers’ coined the phrase ‘returning to the generation of the pious predecessors’ (‘salaf al-saalih’) to bypass centuries of ancient and medieval scholasticism in the liberating spirit of seeking a freer hand in their own interpretations. The intellectual trends that then followed the demise of Abduh, although subsumed within the mantle of his label, did not quite share his intellectual priorities and even less his spirit for independent enquiry. Decades later the label was adopted by the protagonists of the austere Wahhabism of Central Arabia now firmly entrenched within the religious structures of the Saudi Monarchy.
It is generally believed that this may have happened through overtures made by Rida towards the emerging Saudi polity as he grew increasingly disillusioned by the pan-Arabists to whom he had originally oscillated. In gratitude to the funds he received from the then Saudi ‘Ruler’ he penned some works in praise of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab.
However we interpret the actions of these unlikeliest of bedfellows, the earlier intellectual impulse of the original ‘Salafi’ reformers was eclipsed by the literalist impulse of a less tolerant movement. The Wahhabis thus evoked the label in the same vein as the original ‘Salafis’ to guarantee their own continuity with the prophetic teaching outside the teachings of mainstream Sunni Orthodoxy and its classical heritage. For their part, representatives of traditional Sunni Orthodoxy rejected both the modernist Salafis and the radically literalist Wahhabis as heretical.
Traditionally, Sunni scholars have been more tolerant of ‘heretics’ and generally, have never sought to extirpate them whatever their personal loathing.
But whatever the similarities and differences between these strands of Islam and howsoever we appraise their distinct ideological cleavages, we cannot downplay the ‘connections’ of Saudi petrodollars with the rise of a global and potent ‘Salafist’ movement that parades itself as the authentic and exclusive teachings of the Prophet of Islam, whichever tolerable strands it co-opts in that quest. The Soviet-Afghan war [1979 – 1989] and the role Pakistan played as a strategic partner for western interests coupled with financial assistance from Saudi Arabia is a point in question not least because Pakistan’s earliest and most substantive ‘Islamification’ policies emerge during the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haqq [1977 – 1988].
With the flow of Saudi money into Pakistan, the austere teachings of ‘Wahhabism’ followed suit. The sectarian movements that have gone on to destabilise Pakistan today in the full glare of international cameras, targeting the ‘popular cult’ of the country’s mainstream Islamic traditions (‘Sufism’) whilst being fervently anti-Shia have their origins in Zia’s stewardship of Pakistan’s highly outward Islamic ‘vision’.
In this vein we shouldn’t conflate the reckless invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces as the genesis of the current sectarian conflict in the Middle East in what now appears to be the redrawing of national borders. Wherever the arena of these bloody conflicts, whatever their linear ‘causes’ and ‘effects’, however badly mismanaged the imposed ‘political settlements’ in the name of democracy, we cannot ignore the sub-layers of ‘Salafism’ that now fester at the level of a grassroots ‘consciousness’.
But even this is to put aside the present ‘undoing’ of the colonial formations that gave us our haphazard ‘Middle-East’ with its equally cumbersome ‘nation states’ in the first place. The ramifications of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement between Imperial Britain and France concluded in 1916 may have forced historical peoples into the random artificiality of ‘newly formed countries’ but we see today ethnic peoples re-emerge to reshape the now tenuous national borders. The indigenous Kurds occupied a part of the Middle East that transcended the territorial borders created by the Imperial powers. Their homeland traverses parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran but when the borders of these states were being drawn, the powers-be prioritised the interests of their ‘Arab’ bedfellows with little regard for Kurdish national aspirations.
Today the Kurds have reemerged to become an important piece of the new jigsaw.
In any case, the apparatus that made the outflow of Wahhabi thought a characteristic feature of our modern world particularly in its most intolerant manifestations is firmly entrenched and located in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it is routinely represented as ‘Sunni’ is an irony that shouldn’t be lost on any of us as it gradually expunges the Sunni classical heritage from regions unfortunate to encounter its puritan charms.
The celebrated city of Timbuktu in the African Republic of Mali serves as an excellent metaphor. Here in this African bastion of traditional Sunni-Sufi Islam, thousands of graves have been destroyed, mosques levelled to the ground, ‘apostate’ Muslims murdered and precious manuscripts burnt, some of which are many hundreds of years old. This tragedy is being repeated, again and again, time after time, in the full glare of international opprobrium wherever ‘Wahhabi’ fanatics and their loosely affiliated outfits get a foothold. And yet the mainstream Muslim communities continue to be lulled into inaction and disbelief. In Pakistan, these ‘tribulations’ are reduced to western conspiracies as media outlets give platform to a range of pseudo-experts offering their salacious ‘explanations’.
The ‘Muslim-Ummah Syndrome’, Pakistanis; the Marriage Ban
So what does this have to do with the ‘Muslim-Ummah syndrome’ and the Saudi-Pakistani marriage ban?
The recounting of these realities is by no means a waste of this writer’s energies.
Put simply, Pakistan is not immune from the events that unfold around it, ones that its leaders have, at one point or another, been mired in, sometimes unceremoniously. Outside the Saudi-Pakistani partnership courtesy of the cold-war, both countries are part of a globalised order that seems to be in retreat everywhere as those ‘left behind’ ask their own sets of questions. Globalism is not restricted to exchanges between elites or cosmopolitan groups but involves ordinary people too. We readily accept that young Pakistanis from different backgrounds are fond of emulating American ‘celebrities’ whilst keeping abreast of the latest fashion trends from the western world. And so it is perfectly understandable that Saudi Arabia has votaries in Pakistan when it comes to issues of identity-politics and prescriptive Islam.
This reality is mired in the history I narrated earlier and the present events flowing out of that timeline are going to be less benign.
Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi Arabia, not merely geographically and financially but in its new spiritual ties means the current pioneers of Wahhabi Islam now have a firm presence in Pakistan as they do in many parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world. The currents of Wahhabism are being felt on the streets and university campuses of Pakistan as the Saudi government funds mosques and educational projects in Pakistan. There is a reason why the country’s most iconic Mosque designed by a Frenchman is named ‘King Faisal Mosque’. It sits in the country’s new capital, ‘Islamabad’ and was built courtesy of Saudi petrodollars, some 130 million Riyals of it, which in today’s value would roughly translate to well over 100 million dollars.
An emerging and increasingly confident ‘religious’ consciousness will naturally unfold in Pakistan courtesy of these arrangements steeped in a centre of gravity located in the ‘Wahhabi’ heartlands of Saudi Arabia. Even Pakistan’s security agencies have not been immune from this Pandora’s Box, now pitied against its own ineffectual civilian government as it remains sympathetic to the ideals of Zia’s ‘Islamic Republic’. Some western security analysts have accused the ISI, Pakistan’s foremost security agency of turning ‘rogue’ and operating autonomously of the executive branch.
But the Saudi-Pakistan partnership is much more than a political and economic arrangement. It has serious social and cultural implications.
In the past, Pakistani expatriates returning from Saudi Arabia bought with them their new ‘Wahhabi’ faith and installed it in their extended family networks and communities. The patrons of the new faith built shopping complexes and malls through the proceeds of their savings and investments. Architecturally these buildings were characterised by a strictly Saudi style prioritising a Wahhabi-induced ethical standard; separate entrances for women, separate seating areas, gender-assigned entrances/exists. The long sojourn in Saudi Arabia, imagined as the cradle of Islam, had serious implications for those members who remained behind.
But critically as Pakistan’s new religious ‘middle class’ emerge confident in their ‘authentic’ and ‘puritan’ strand of Islam, devotionally adorning the attire of the ‘authentic Muslims’, they will still have to face the social prejudices of their Saudi coreligionists who don’t treat the Pakistani expatriate community as equals, aside from structural inequalities in Saudi society.
Of course, racism is not unique to Saudi Arabia, for the history of community relations in North America, Europe and Australia all share in these commonalities. But the West demonstrably has a better track record when dealing with religious and ethnic minorities because of liberal and secular ‘values’.
Western countries, in the main, have social cohesion policies that actually work because of functioning political and legal systems that can deal with any number of ‘minority’ grievances. This ‘political culture’ is rooted in the primacy of transparent and equitable laws, a culture that is distinctly absent from the Saudi experience or consciousness. It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia has a terrible record on human rights and dispensing social justice. Saudi Arabia is a violator of human rights we take for granted in the West. There is no other way of expressing this truth.
But these ‘differences’ become non-issues for Pakistani-Muslims who have bought wholesale the religious myth that the Muslim Ummah is one body summed up in the belief, that when one part hurts, the other parts feel the pain.
Even when we accept tentatively that we have a Muslim ‘fraternity’ worthy of an embryonic continuity with the Prophet of Islam’s nascent community in Medina, it is certainly not equal or egalitarian.
Devotionally, Muslims might consider the unity of the Muslim ‘Ummah’ as a religious obligation but it has no practical substance outside the cleric’s sermon. Even in the heydays of an expanding and triumphant ‘Islam’, it was merely accepted that ‘people’, Muslims, non-Muslims, males, females, masters, servants, occupational groups etc., were not equal as the primacy of Islamic law was not rooted in the enlightenment ideas of humanism and equality. From this perspective, people are all equal because we are ‘human’ from which we accrue our human rights. We do not turn to some higher legislative source to rationalise this proposition; human rights are ‘human’ rights and not ‘god-given’ rights.
There is no comparable tradition of human rights in Islamic law (‘shari’a’ as codified by private jurists) applicable to all human beings. Islamic law is religious law with an inherent bias towards ‘adult’ ‘Male’ ‘Muslims’ of ‘noble lineages’ and ‘respectable occupations’ who are not ‘slaves’. It is largely a product of the age in which it was codified. ‘Muslim women’, for instance, do not share the same rights that their ‘male counterparts’ enjoy; they have a semi-legal personality well below that of ‘non-Muslim males’. Those who argue otherwise, demanding that their Islamic (‘shar’i’) ‘obligation’ to wear the ‘hijab’ is, in fact, a ‘human right’ are just ignorant of the incoherence of their claims.
Crucially, whatever the claims of religious people about their god-given laws, it is still human beings ‘creating’, ‘extracting’, ‘interpreting’ and ‘codifying’ those laws – none of us can turn to that higher source to validate the ensuing claims. Adherents of these laws are thus at the mercy of mostly religious men who demand this loyalty as a proof of religious virtue. It is thus not ‘God’ that is the determiner of religious propriety but the ‘clerics’. Human rights has absolutely nothing in connection with this priority.
And so for religiously-minded Muslims, adorning the hijab (‘mutahajib’) is not a choice but a religious duty with penal consequences for those failing to dress appropriately. Islamic legal manuals from every school of thought, Sunni or Shia, stipulate the various ‘punishments’ for such ‘infractions’. Saudi Arabia and Iran are not innovating anything new, religiously-speaking, when they choose to enforce their religious codes. Again, western Muslims, normally apologetic ones, who claim on panel-shows that the ‘Sunni’ Saudis and the ‘Shia’ Iranians are somehow perverting the true practise of ‘Islam’, are just ignorant of the claims they make.
How can anyone take the claims of western Muslims, with the right to practise their religion freely because of secular norms seriously, when they condemn their Muslim peers in Saudi Arabia or Iran for perverting ‘true’ Islamic law?
This is nothing more than intellectual dishonesty.
There is of course a wider point here.
The King of Saudi Arabia may be the self-styled ‘Custodian of the two Holy Sanctuaries’ (‘Khadim ul-Haramayn’) but he is also the figurehead of an old patriarchal system that guarantees its own privileged survival at the expense of its impoverished masses. Ironically, the ongoing viability of this order is strictly dependent on global dynamics and power-arrangements agreed with Western powers but crucially outside the limited experiences of young, naïve and impressionable Muslims. These are priorities that are not underpinned by imagined religious ideals however melodramatic the ‘internationalist’ sermons of Wahhabi preachers.
In fact Saudi Arabia has all the trappings of a modern state but it is not a product of modernity that not only gave us the rationalisation of the nation-state as being the natural outgrowth of uniform ethno-linguistic groups but also various governance paradigms that put people at the centre of such considerations. As I said, there is no comparable tradition in Islamic law that locates in the human being the inherent right to be treated ‘humanely’ by virtue of one’s humanity. Also, the modern concept of citizenship has moved on massively from the idea of being a Monarch’s ‘subject’, a relationship that was historically sanctified by clerics. Saudi Arabia’s secular and religious patrons of the State are not heirs to ‘Enlightenment’ principles that ‘humanise’ the human being by giving him or her inalienable human rights and dignity.
In fact, Saudi Arabia, from a handful of countries, abstained from being a party to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time the declaration was first announced in 1948, the other countries abstaining included Apartheid South Africa and the former Soviet-bloc countries. The Saudi objection was simple, ‘freedom of religion’ (a ‘human right’) violated Islamic law.
Almost 70 years on, its preachers continue to teach intolerance of Jews, Christians and other less favourable non-Muslim ‘heathen’ communities – a medieval perennial anxiety that in theological paradigms translated into an eschatological conflict with apocalyptic implications. Its more eccentric preachers continue to toy with the idea that slavery isn’t really that bad an institution or obtaining ‘concubines’ through war could alleviate the infidelity of promiscuous males.
At the level of state-sanctioned policies, members of the royal family, we’re talking about thousands of Princes, are guaranteed state-jobs before ‘citizens’. The State continues to uphold the values of an extreme patriarchy and so the ‘Kingdom’ has the unique ‘accolade’ of being the only country on earth to prohibit female drivers –religious groups are extremely proud of this whilst the more cosmopolitan citizens find the ‘restriction’ utterly embarrassing. The reasons given are extremely insightful of the mindset that pervades Wahhabi discourse – some of the health reasons are so bizarre when couched in ‘scientific facts’ that it stupefies observers about the nature of education in Saudi Arabia!
And yet Saudi Arabia has the highest number of female university graduates in the region, a reality that many Saudis are proud of in the belief that this demonstrates that the Kingdom is gender-equal. Of course this largess owes more to the wealth opportunities put at the disposal of its indigenous rich than any transformative yearning to give women personal autonomy. The prophet may have emphasised the importance of female education, a trope routinely made by Muslim scholars reminding the West about Islam’s ‘emancipation’ of women all those years ago but for the patrons of the Kingdom, females working in a male-dominated society is another matter altogether. In public spaces, the law demands that women be accompanied by male chaperons of ‘non-marriageable status’ (‘ghayr mahram’). Every part of their bodies can be a cause of sexual excitement to males, and so they must be covered from head to toe – not even their voices are spared, a seductive ‘organ’ that could potentially overpower unsuspecting males. How far people digress from the Kingdom’s sanctioned morality is another question altogether – although ‘agents of morality’ are always lurking in the shadows. The fact that a Saudi woman cannot obtain a passport or any other official document without the consent of her male guardian should be food for thought.
There is of course a point to mentioning this state-enforced discrimination. These inequalities as outrageous as they may appear to a mind-set reconciled with the idea of modernity and the principles of a secular liberal democracy – whatever the ideological misgivings of diehard traditionalists – are simply rejected by those who see in the European Enlightenment ‘ungodly proportions’. To feel outraged at the discriminatory treatment of one’s nationals at the hands of Saudi patrons presupposes that equality is a universal value.
In Saudi Arabia and in many parts of the Muslim world it simply isn’t. The self-explanatory nature of this truth is glaringly obvious except to the most deluded of Muslims who live in the safe space of their ‘Muslim bubbles’.
I am not merely speaking of civic or political rights’ but ‘rights’ that are universal and shared by virtue of our shared humanity, without which human beings would be unable to give expression to the very things that make life worth ‘living’. It is at this juncture, we must accept that the present issue is not merely about discrimination, a side-effect if you like, but really about ‘values’ that are seldom understood.
And so why should ‘Pakistanis’ be treated any differently from a mass of other nationalities that are treated unfairly, that oftentimes include destitute ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ migrants from Morocco, Egypt or Yemen. How often do Pakistanis decry the Saudi treatment of Philippian or Sri Lankan maids? These abuses are frequently reported in a ‘free’ western press and individual cases are taken up, pro bono, by human rights organisations headquartered in Europe or North America. Many observers have noted that the ‘kafala’ system in much of the Gulf Monarchies, where live-in domestic maids from foreign countries, usually South Asia, are treated as if they were ‘purchased’ as opposed to being ‘employees’ with rights. And yet, one would be hard pressed to hear anyone from the Muslim world speak about this tragedy. How often do we hear of a ‘Pakistani’ human rights organisation advocating on behalf of aggrieved expatriate ‘workers’ in Kuwait for instance? How often do we hear of Saudi human rights organisations advocating on behalf of Christian bonded labourers forced to work as virtual slaves in the brick kilns of Pakistan Punjab?
The ‘Muslim syndrome’ presupposes that its devotion to the idea of a universal Ummah will somehow be benign to those who embody such a public persona. It presupposes equitable reciprocation. The purveyors of such an idea are sorely misguided. Saudi Arabia with its modern army courtesy of western technology and petrodollars will not come to the defence of the Palestinian ‘Arabs’ whose ‘Islamist’ leaders it loathes whatever the sermons of brotherly love from its state-sanctioned pulpits. It constantly strives to quash the democratic urgings of its own errant sons and daughters in the name of tradition and morality, so why should it intervene in Palestine and disrupt the Israeli occupation?
The Snowdon Leaks, for instance, revealed Saudi proclivities to encourage America to militarily attack Iran, a fellow Muslim country subsumed within the universal fraternity of the ‘Ummah’ complex. Others more intimately attuned with Wahhabi theology would decry this ‘sloppy’ misrepresentation of mine, no doubt arguing that Iran’s patrons are of dubious ‘faith’! But the point remains.
There is no universal fraternity of Muslims anywhere in the world.
And so why should the grievances of expatriate Pakistanis matter in this overall scheme of ordered inequality? Non-Saudi citizens are not allowed to own properties or assets of any kind in the Kingdom and are required by law to have ‘Saudi’ agents – reminiscent of an ancient ‘Arab’ tribal configuration which in the early days of Islam’s founding required non-Arab ‘Muslim’ converts to bear the names of their ‘Arab’ benefactors. This history, the real account expunged from Islamist or Wahhabi history books is a precursor to a lot of the discrimination we find repugnant today. These social norms of outward discrimination have the full weight of Saudi law and are taken for granted without ever perturbing a religious consciousness at the heart of a shared ‘Islamic identity’.
But there shouldn’t be any naiveté here either.
The nature of the monarchical polity means political elites of Pakistan are inevitably treated better than the general mass of ordinary expatriates. In many ways Saudi Arabia needs ‘nuclear’ Pakistan, perhaps a lot more than Pakistan’s elites need Saudi foreign aid. Given Saudi ambitions to contain Iran and propel itself in the region hegemonically, Pakistan is an important bulwark with strategic importance beyond its otherwise periphery status for the Saudis. Pakistan is also a reliable source of cheap labour with little protection afforded to its citizens.
Successive Pakistani governments have never been in the habit of promoting the welfare of their citizens abroad. For the few privileged Pakistanis in the Kingdom, the onerous structural impediments of the State are quickly and arbitrarily relaxed. And so why would the privileged elites of Pakistan, many of whose peers have availed fortunes and social prestige through their own propensities for corruption and ‘inequality’ lobby against the treatment of their poorer and less-connected fellow-citizens in the Kingdom?
And yet in the West, in the lands of ‘unfettered debauchery’ and ‘ungodly propriety’ where, for the most part, demonstrably we can prove this, the rule of law actually ‘rules’ supreme. In Britain, Muslim minorities have had an unparalleled existence to that of religious minorities in Saudi Arabia; can any of us say honestly that life for non-Muslim communities in Saudi Arabia is much better than life for Muslims in Britain?
It is in the bastion of true Islamic faith, in the heart of Islamdom, that non-Muslims are not allowed any form of religious expression, where resident females irrespective of belief must cover their hair and be accompanied by male chaperons – exceptions duly made for diplomats and heads of state; ‘Power’ being the ultimate criterion. And so to be denied ‘rights’ by fellow Muslims whilst harbouring the mistaken belief that all Muslims are equal, ‘rights’ that are ordinarily available in the West proves the delusions of the ‘Muslim-Ummah syndrome’ especially when Pakistanis genuinely feel aggrieved at such treatment. Pakistanis are not ‘Arabs’ in any innately self-confirming ‘Saudi’ sense of the term and so why should the Saudi establishment care about popular ‘Pakistani’ sentiments simply because the latter feels ‘let down’?
Throughout the Arab world, whenever clerics and preachers ask God for blessings, they almost always entreat Him “to bless the Arabs and the Muslims”. This popular phrase exposes a dichotomy in their own minds between Arabs, who are just automatically assumed to be Muslims and ‘Muslims, i.e., the non-Arab ‘converts’. The fact that the Ummah is dichotomised in this way by ‘clerics’ shouldn’t be lost on Pakistanis who think they are part of a universal fraternity.
But, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a separate relationship with the Muslim world’s elite even if they happen to be non-Arabs. It can be counted on to fling open its doors to fleeing Pakistani politicians as it gives sanctuary to ousted dictators its fond of. A recent case in point would be to cite the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine and his family. The wife of this ousted dictator hated all over Tunisia allegedly stole upwards of 60 million dollars’ worth of gold bullion and tens of millions of dollars through her accounts before fleeing the country. This money belongs to the Tunisian people if indeed you believe territories do not belong to monarchs or absolute dictators but to their ‘nationals’. We are told the Abedines’ first choice of refuge was France but the French government politely turned them down mindful of domestic critics and the international media. The Saudis on the other hand didn’t have any anxieties. They welcomed the Abedines with open arms and have no intention of returning these fugitives to Tunisia despite international arrest warrants.
And so as the ousted Nawaz Sharif returned from Saudi Arabia to resume his halted political career in Pakistan amid charges of corruption, these elites have in their own ‘elite-fraternity’ a bond of kinship not extended to Pakistan’s desperate poor. Not one iota of an imagined Muslim fraternity or consciousness is going to open up this network to the world’s inconsequential poor many of whom are Muslims.
To hit this point home, I would like to cite the example of the military dictator Idi Amin and his expulsion of ‘South Asians’ from Uganda in 1972. A year or so earlier, Amin came to power through a peaceful military coup having overthrown President Obote who was in Singapore at the time. The Asian community comprised approximately eighty thousand people and had been living in Uganda for more than a century because of the particular circumstances of colonialism. Overtime they became an affluent community, described as the backbone of the country’s economy. This led to widespread resentment from the indigenous community and eventually was the cause of their expulsion greatly exploited by Amin. Approximately 50 thousand Ugandan Asians were British passport holders, 30 thousand or so settled in Britain. The rest were resettled in Canada, the US, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, India, Pakistan and Europe
Like Edi Amin, some of the South Asians were Muslims, the rest were Hindus and Sikhs. Their ordeals were harrowing as they were stripped of their enormous wealth and forced to leave with nothing but the clothes on their back. Some were imprisoned and others were tortured. A few ‘disappeared’.
It is generally acknowledged that Amin was a ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of approximately 500 thousand people. His regime was utterly brutal and was accused of war crimes. His epithet sums him up well, ‘the butcher of Uganda’. In 1979, Amin was eventually overthrown by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles. He was then airlifted to safety to Libya with an entourage of approximately 80 members of his family. He was a good friend of Qaddafi, another brutal ‘Arab’ dictator that, for some reason, a lot of Muslims including Pakistanis are endeared to. Amin finally sought sanctuary in Saudi Arabia where he lived with his family until his death on a generous stipend courtesy of the Saudi Monarchy.
The Saudi Monarchy spared no thought for the victims, Muslim or otherwise of Amin’s extreme barbarity.
With this in mind, it makes no sense for Pakistanis to decry the marriage ban. In many Pakistani online forums, one can read about the ill-treatment of Asians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The popular bugbear is the difference in treatment between Muslims from the Developing World and ‘whites’ from the Developed World. The level of outrage is understandable but not ‘rational’ given the nature of global power-dynamics. It presupposes absolute equality as a shared value among an imaginary fraternity.
At the political level, there shouldn’t be any confusion; America is the military patron of the ‘Arab’ Kingdoms. It will be American boots that inevitably protect these ‘princely realms’ from self-imploding given the latent-feelings of hatred lurking in their domestic populations. As American reliance on oil imports decline and the Israeli-American partnership loses its geo-political bearings, and as the Middle East becomes less important to the new emerging powers, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Saudi royal family is probably revaluating its own standing. It will inevitably become a sitting duck for the religious forces it sponsored only narrowly suppressing as the Kingdom now fights its proxy wars with its regional enemies. Its own government-appointed analysists are probably reappraising the Kingdom’s direction of travel, as they ensure the old entente survives in the future. Many Muslims are simply unaware of these priorities.
In any case, one can understand the reasons why ‘white’ Americans and ‘white’ Europeans are so welcomed in these Arab monarchies, afforded treatment seldom offered to Pakistan’s ‘duskier’ expatriates. The issue here is not about complexion, a sub-text that has its own issues, but ‘power-dynamics’.
At the societal level, in many Arab countries infatuation with things ‘western’ follows on from the same attitudes many Pakistanis exhibit towards the ‘West’. These Saudi proclivities are by no means dissimilar to Pakistani proclivities or Iranian proclivities. These crossovers reveal personalities harbouring a level of inner-disquiet. The Muslim-Ummah syndrome is predicated on the implicit belief that to be true to one’s faith, one must somehow deny a bit of oneself, almost distance oneself from one’s own cultural heritage.
This is a form of self-loathing.
But, in this overall scheme of things, Saudis are no different in their own peculiar ‘self-loathing’, crossovers that are a symptom of the modern world borne of colonial configurations. Skin whitening creams are plentifully available in the Middle East as they are in Pakistan and in parts of Africa and East Asia. The fetish for blonde-streaks, perfectly straight-hair and piercing blue contact-lenses are clear for anyone watching ‘Arab’ singers perform, showing off their latest ‘nose-jobs’. Iran’s plastic surgery industry is booming and the demand for even thinner, finer, ‘button-noses’ is revealing of how young Iranians perceive themselves. Why anyone would assume such features to be defining features of western Europeans is another point altogether but that’s how power-dynamics work.
On any number of Iranian websites, budding bachelors and bachelorettes describe themselves as ‘Caucasians’! They are of course as ‘white’ today as were the Irish, Greeks or Italians in 19th century America. If indeed, Iranians were convinced of their Caucasian, and by this I mean ‘European’ appearances, I doubt they would be spending so much money trying to emulate the appearances of their much-admired peers. There is of course nothing ‘Caucasian’ about Iranians in any ‘racial’ sense of the term. They are no more ‘white’ than ‘Nordic’ Germans or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Brits are ‘Aryans’. These are constructed labels that are not understood no less their historical contexts not least because the term originates from colonial discourses that took place in colonial ‘India’. These ideas were transported to ‘Persia’ and at one point resulted in the country changing its name to ‘Iran’, the land of the Aryans. The actual realities of such claims remain elusive today to many Iranians who are keen to point out racial commonalities with a non-reciprocating Europe, and by that I mean western Europe.
This humiliating ‘self-hatred’ that Pakistanis are so fond of displaying when assuming ‘European’ or ‘Arab’ or ‘Persian’ airs is therefore not unique to them. It is characteristic of a people ashamed of their backgrounds. The sad reality of such disavowal is the ignorance that accompanies it. The Pakistan Project, its ideological bearings and its desire to construct from scratch a totally ahistorical ‘identity’ has been catastrophic for India’s former Muslims unaware of the nature of constructed identities and origin-myths. ‘Pakistanis’ are heirs to a heritage that courtly elites in medieval Europe marvelled at as they ‘imagined’ India’s fabulous wealth and courtly culture. This self-loathing, entirely of Pakistan’s choosing, has strategically located Pakistan at the bottom of an illusory ‘Muslim’ pecking order that moves westwards from the direction of the River Indus.
The newly liberated and ideologically-minded ‘Pakistanis’ by virtue of their association with ‘pagan’ and ‘dark-skinned’ India are as eager as ever to point out that they are not ‘Indians’. They naively deprecate a rich heritage, thousands of years in the making. This heritage is more admired than the flimsy commonalities they seek with Muslim peoples west of the River Indus. The delight that Pakistani women take in being told they look ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Arab’ completely unaware of the heterogeneity of such ‘backgrounds’ is not a figment of this writer’s imagination. It is a daily curse that is discernible in the wider region. To tell a ‘fair-skinned’ Pakistani with supposedly ‘European’ features however nonsensical such ‘racial’ claims that she looks Indian is to flatten her ego and wash her body in the sacred waters of the Ganges.
This plague is not unique to Pakistan or the Middle East though. It has poisoned Indians too. Bollywood is a good place to start with its crazed obsession with fair-skinned actors and a beauty industry worth billions of dollars annually that seeks to castrate its Indian summers for bitterly cold European winters. In which other national film industry do we encounter large numbers of fair-skinned foreigners dancing to the beats of native drums movie after movie?
Which other film industry imports actresses who happen to have a ‘hint’ of an ‘Indian’ ancestry to assume leading roles on big budget movie-sets, their voices dubbed given their non-native accents?
This madness, and it is without doubt a form of neurosis, has poisoned an entire nation with the ridiculous expectation that to ‘get ahead in life’ one must fight the forces of nature and pander to the egos of privileged fools. In cyclical motion, it endorses and condemns itself all the while it tries to understand the pervasive impact of colonialism and the new impulses of a shrinking world thanks to globalisation. Where is the home-grown Indian voice in these ensuing realities that will project India on its own terms? There are many for sure but they are deafened by the louder cacophony that passes as Indian entertainment, fashion and social-class conventions.
But why stop with the impressionable populations of the Middle East or South Asia?
Western Europe and North America are not aloof from these dynamics either. The West has its share of problems as the starved ‘beauties’ of its catwalks strut their feminine charms as incidental accessories to the skimpy clothes they adorn. Being skinny – almost skeletal is not a feature of the ‘European’ ‘race’ – to starve oneself in order to look ‘beautiful’ is not an instinct borne of the evolutionary process. Why else would ‘beautiful’ women want to starve themselves other than to ensure the garments they wear carry the full attention of the day – and yet this ‘commodification’ is presented as ‘high-brow’ fashion. Western Europe’s craze for tanning shops and spray tans and the rise in skin cancers are all part of this dynamic; breast implants, plastic surgery, the need for fuller lips, liposuction are all hallmarks of people unhappy with nature’s providence.
Many ‘Westerners’ are themselves captives to ludicrous ideas, racial myths and inflated egos that somehow locate ‘whiteness’ at the top of an imagined civilizational scale all the while they are ignorant of how the label first emerged. Many are ignorant of a complex history that saw entire communities of poor ‘whites’ from England shipped off to the new colonies – – the actual idea of “white trash” has its origin in such sensibilities. ‘London’, it was argued, would be so much more pleasant for its real/productive ‘whites’ without having to bump into such vagabonds who otherwise stunk up the neighbourhoods. Decades later in the New World, as the promise of the American dream become an alluring myth, the assumed ‘whiteness’ of the ‘Irish’, the ‘Italians’, ‘Jews’, Eastern Europeans and others was always up for discussion. Eventually, it wasn’t the race scientists who decided whiteness but the federal courts!
But we shouldn’t be remiss to mention that in the West, there are powerful lobbies that understand this history and the dangers of not learning from it. We have powerful groups, civil rights activists, feminists and others challenging structural biases and discrimination not afraid to offend the conventional tropes.
American hip hop is a good example to cite. Its artists have followers everywhere now and the propensity of youngsters to let their trousers loosely fall off their backsides is no longer a badge of prison credentials. Of course in the realm of fashion, the practise takes on a different meaning – it’s cool now to show the tops of your ‘boxers’. But the keenness to call women ‘bitches’ and sing the praises of ‘gangsta’ culture may be an art form with roots in deprived ghettos but it equally has vocal critics, many of whom are drawn from the African American community. This genre of music postures through a form of hyper-masculinity that may appear attractive to naïve adolescents feverishly downloading the latest tracks but it smacks of a contradiction that cherishes music as an art form whilst its explicit ‘X’-rated lyrics are anything but civilizational. I have in mind the thought of “pimping bitches, being ‘gangsta’, ‘buying a hundred thousand dollar shoes’, selling drugs, etc.”. Howsoever we understand or dispute the claims about the content of hip-hop lyrics, the point I’m making is that there is an abundance of critics bemoaning this art-form has a vehicle that glorifies violence. Again their voices are silenced by the cumulative weight of what passes as American entertainment and fashion and crucially commercial profits.
But, what is the equivalence in Pakistan? With a handful of a few impassioned critics, there aren’t many given the nation’s deep love for conspiracy theories. Indeed we have religious movements that want to challenge the ‘impiety’ of the nation and expunge itself from its Hindu and Buddhist heritage and we can second-guess who they’ll be turning to? They may find repugnant the self-immolating imitation of their peers towards anything western or ‘modern’ but in the quest to expunge these base abnormalities in a manner that endorses the country’s perceived Muslim past – however shoddily construed, they self-affirm through the ‘Muslim-Ummah syndrome’. And why shouldn’t they when the road that leads to this particular ‘virtue’ is increasingly paved with Saudi finance.
The ‘Two Nations’ Theory’ may have been the ideological ploy of politicians seeking to mobilise their Muslim masses against the perceived dangers of a dominant Hindu order but it failed the test of history and not just political truths. There is nothing remotely unique about Pakistan that somehow distinguishes it from its Indian peers east of the border, and neither has the claim helped Pakistan stand on its own two feet – the existence of Islam in Pakistan no more defines Pakistan than Hinduism defines India whatever the revisionist narratives of its Hindu Nationalists. Similarly, to deny one’s Hindu or Buddhist heritage because of some misplaced religiosity is to deny one’s past and to give the lie to the claim that India’s heritage can only be understood exclusively in ideological or atavistic terms. This is akin to Hindu nationalists clamouring against the banality and death-cult of ‘Islam’ whilst speaking poetically in Persian-influenced ‘Hindi’ on their way to visit the Taj Mahal!
The Muslim-Ummah syndrome is thus much more than a couple of Pakistanis wearing ‘thawbs’ (ankle-length robes) and ‘ghutras’ (head coverings) in the typical Saudi style whilst calling each other respectfully – or at least those with children – “Abu” so and so. The trend in Pakistan to use number plates adorning the Arabic pronunciation of ‘Pakistan’ as ‘al-Bakistan’ is thus poetic.
In a nutshell outrage at the treatment afforded to Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia is nonsensical when we fail to grasp the interconnected nature of our modern world and Pakistan’s inability to stand on its own two feet. Its own ‘structural inequalities’ mirror poetically the structural inequalities in Saudi Arabia and locates the hubris of Arab-adoring Pakistanis that they have somehow redeemed themselves by finding authentic Islam whilst being outraged by the mind-set that made Wahhabism, for instance, possible in the first place.
It is this interconnected nature of our modern world that will help explain why deferring to the idea of a universal Muslim identity and its romanticism is the antithesis of anything positive that could potentially kindle in the Pakistani spirit a deep urge to be true to itself. The nature of Pakistan and the nature of our modern world, with all its fractures, cleavages and ‘humiliations’, render the shedding of tears over one or another ‘social injustice’ a useless exercise when we refuse to accept that human ‘acts’ follow on from human ‘values’. If our ‘values’ are stuck in some ‘timeless’ rut where acting humanely is merely a chivalrous deed and not a commitment to human rights and individual liberties, then we shouldn’t get upset when we’re treated ‘inhumanely’. A fair and caring society demands a lot more than just a few courteous words expressed in the typical Muslim salutary greetings.
If Saudis prohibit their nationals from marrying the nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chad and Burma we shouldn’t forget that the Saudi Princes had never once promised their expatriate Pakistanis equal treatment. If Pakistanis still feel a little ‘dejected’, perhaps they should look at the ubiquitous levels of inequality in Pakistan to cheer themselves up!