Friday, 22 July 2011

The Saudi Menace: an abuse of wealth and authority

I want to write about the pernicious international influence of Saudi Arabia that threatens the lives of people not just in Muslim countries but also here in the West.  The Saudi influence is particularly worrying for three reasons:

-    first, it is brain washing on an industrial scale and with negative consequences, especially for developing countries which need investment in decent education, not 7th century propaganda; in the West, it is encouraging Muslim immigrants and their children to adopt a counter subculture that in many respects is not only opposed to western values, but seeks to replace them with Saudi-interpreted Islamic ones;

-    second, it is backed not just by huge financial resources, but comes laden with religious symbolism and self-proclaimed religious authority which gives it a false legitimacy; and

-    third, it is curiously schizophrenic and contradictory: within a western environment, it claims to celebrate  the achievements of Islamic, usually Arab, civilization (although it is not as if the Gulf Arabs are renowned for their enlightened views or respect for human rights); however, in Muslim communities (even within western countries) it is directed at projects that preach a narrow, fundamentalist and orthodox interpretation of Islam that is intolerant and brooks no opposition or debate.   Moreover, it seeks to enforce itself through the use of force. 

The latter view, unsurprisingly, is the obnoxious Saudi invented view of Islam called Wahabism and dominates the teaching in Quran schools, Islamic centres and madressas that the Saudis fund across the world. While in the Muslim third world this propaganda and brainwashing goes unchallenged, in the west it plays out under the guise of cultural institutions or charities.  In both instances, these projects are funded by Saudi financed cultural ministries.

The investment operates rather differently within a western environment, however.  The Saudis, and the Gulf Arabs, are a very insecure lot culturally, given their sparse contributions to world civilization compared to other nations and cultures.  (Even the 1001 nights are not really Arabian, but a compilation of stories from various other cultures.)  The Gulf Arabs reserve their most fervent insecurity for their old enemy, the Persians, who of course far surpass anything the desert Bedouins have ever come up with.  (No, I am not Persian, a Shia or from a Shia background!)  It is perhaps for this reason they are so keen to project themselves as ‘cultured’ to the West and eager to invest in centres such as the one in Oxford University.

While much was made of Libyan gifts to the LSE, Saudi donations towards the Islamic Centre in Oxford University have gone largely unnoticed.  No one has stopped to ask why if that civilization is worth promoting, the Saudis don’t invest in such projects in their own country or why they choose to support financially and ideologically religious schools that preach intolerance, fundamentalism, the disregard of human rights and any debate or investigation.  If the Saudis brown nose the Brits, the Brits are equally good at brown nosing the Saudis.  Money and oil lubricates this sordid mutual flattery.

I feel that these projects, whether in the Muslim world or in the West, need to be seen for what they are: an unwelcome interference and a cynical manipulation of what people within those communities think.  Ultimately, this impacts on all our lives and in a negative way.  This is especially the case in the third world, where education is grossly neglected by corrupt governments.  Here, it is not a case of a modern/progressive versus an orthodox/backward looking Islam, but rather two competing orthodox backward looking ideologies (the Saudis and Al-Qaeeda) – although sometimes I think they are two sides of the same coin.  In one respect, I think, the Saudi madressas provide the necessary mental preparation that makes its graduates so vulnerable to Al-Qaeeda/Taliban overtures.  In the West, this orthodox, backward ideology is trumpeted as a religious revival, a reclaiming of lost or stolen identity – and worse, political power. 

Unfortunately, Saudi authority rests on potent symbols: religion and wealth.  They (the Saudis) have successfully usurped religious authority through a mix of historical, cultural and geographical coincidence: they come from the same region as the Prophet Muhammed and so the cradle of Islam; are ethnically and culturally of the same stock as  the Prophet and have, within their borders, two of the holiest places of worship in Islam- Mecca and Medina.

In the eyes of many, therefore, they represent an embodiment of Islam and so to be Muslim is to be Arab, specifically Saudi Arab.  Arabic is the language of the Quran and any discourse on Islam is littered with Arabic phrases as if to couch them in local vernacular is being sacrilegious.  The most poignant example of this for me is the virtual eradication of a beautiful greeting that I grew up with: khuda hafiz (God protect you). Instead, in the narrow minds of many now it is more Islamic and more correct to say Allah hafiz, something that even an Arab wouldn’t dream of saying.  But Khuda is Persian, Allah is Arabic and god you see is – you guessed it - an Arab it seems! 

In this context, it is hard not to view as anything but cynical the adoption of an overtly religious flag with its Islamic declaration of faith, and more recently the adoption by their king of the title of “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, a title historically associated with the Caliph in Islam (and one ironically adopted by the very Ottoman Sultans that the Saudis disliked so much and helped bring down).

I think for some these associations and symbols make criticism of the Saudis synonymous with criticism of the religion – and so blasphemous.  This keeps the Saudis safe, while the power they wield through oil keeps any criticism from the West at bay.  They like to play the great mediators, when in fact they are part of the problem not the solution.  It is noteworthy how they are always at the ready to offer support or give refuge to vile dictators or corrupt politicians from Uganda to Pakistan – and strangely silent over crises such as Darfur to name just one. 

Of course, what the Saudis do in their own time is their business – it is the negative effects of their interference and their hypocrisy that irks me.  Under the guise of education, they are spreading a narrow, rigid and fundamentalist ideology that comes close to being fascist in its outlook and forced implementation, easily degenerating into terrorism.  Of course, for the Saudis this matters not a jot – it is not they who are being killed.  In the meantime, while they support the preaching of a strict, puritanical Islam, they themselves escape to the West to indulge in the very decadence that their brand of Islam condemns. 

The hypocrisy of ‘converts’ or born again Muslims in the West is no better.  While enjoying the economic and social benefits of a liberal, enlightened society they see fit to not only criticise and mock it, but then to lecture on the virtues and benefits of Islamic societies, societies that their parents fled from and which these critics are welcome to return to if they consider the West so awful.  They see it as their human right to adopt their odious (and in my opinion, ignorant) views which in turn seek to deprive those same rights to others.  The contradiction is beyond their intellectual competence – or perhaps neatly pushed to one side by their hypocrisy. 
It reminds me of a silly Asian schoolgirl in London who took her school to court for not allowing her to wear ‘Islamic’ dress to school.  The school had allowed her to wear the shalwar-kameez common throughout the Indian subcontinent, but the misguided girl insisted the dress was not modest enough for Islam!  She wanted to dress like an Arab – the hallmark of a true observant Muslim in her eyes.  Who had put these silly notions into her head, I wonder?  Rightly, she lost her case. 

But it is time to stop tolerating such behaviour.  Enough is enough!

In a very small way I think this is beginning to be realised by the Pakistanis in London at least.  In a previous post I recounted my visit to a London mosque financed and run by Pakistanis.  At the time, I chose to emphasise a different aspect of this effort (an aspect that I think is still valid), but now I also see it as an attempt to take control of their religion rather than remain beholden to Saudi paymasters with their pernicious agenda.  I congratulate the Pakistanis on this awakening and wish them well. 

I admit I am not enthusiastic about their religion-focussed outlook - and while there I noticed that several of the men folk and children were attired in the Middle-eastern jalabiyah – a garment foreign to the Indian subcontinent, but no doubt worn in the mistaken belief that it is somehow more religious. But at least it's a start. 

And then, just this week I heard about a case in Pakistan where a woman had taken on two jobs - both menial - to pay for her children's schooling rather than send them to the free madressas on offer.    

But these are isolated incidents.  More is needed and on a bigger scale.  Until people, and the Muslims specifically, realise this and begin to see the wood for the trees, they will continue to be locked in a downward spiral of ignorance and servitude.  And until the West continues to turn a blind eye to the Saudis because it suits them they will be seen as colluders and hypocrites.  Worse, if they choose to ignore it through a misguided definition of and blind allegiance to plurality/multi-culturalism, they will have allowed the rot to set in their own societies.

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