Friday, 3 April 2020

40 years of religious totalitarianism and the closing of the Muslim mind


Books by Kim Ghattas & Ben  Hubbard
In early 2020, two books written by experienced Middle East reporters appeared only weeks apart from each other: Black Wave of former BBC and Financial Times correspondent Kim Ghattas and MBS, by New York Times Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard. While each offers a distinct perspective on recent developments in the Middle East, their narratives work their way to the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Both authors interpret this murder as an important game changer in a political and intellectual climate that has only become more turbulent in the wake of events that have rattled the Muslim world since the beginning of the new millennium, but the roots of which can be traced back several decades.

Born in Beirut at the beginning of the civil war, in Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East, Lebanese-Dutch Kim Ghattas traces the origins of the competition between two Middle Eastern super powers: Saudi Arabia, a desert monarchy claiming to safeguard Sunni Islam, and, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is set on spreading its own revolutionary interpretation of Islam and postures as the self-proclaimed protector of the oppressed Shiʽa minorities in the Muslim world.


Ghattas explicitly identifies a watershed year that has set in motion a dynamics that eventually spiralled out of control of the main political actors, becoming a ‘torrent that flattens everything in its path’ (2). 1979 saw not only the fall of a key Western ally in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, it also witnessed the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots accusing the ruling Al Saudi dynasty of corruption and hypocrisy, while further east, Afghans mobilized in a religiously inspired resistance movement after Communist infidels invaded the unruly mountain country from Soviet Central Asia. What Ghattas does not mention is that, according to the Islamic calendar, 1979 coincides with the year 1400;  the start of the fifteenth century of the Islamic era which formally began with the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622CE. According to one hadith, Muhammad once said that after his demise there would be a mujaddid, a religious 'renewer'  for every century of the Islamic era.

While sections of the population-at-large embraced this religious revival, others remained sceptical and, as time progressed, many became concerned and disillusioned as yet another form of totalitarianism began oppressing the people.

Farag Foda
Nasr Abu Zayd

Progressively-minded intellectuals were among the key victims when the ‘Arab Renaissance’ (Nahda), which had begun in the late nineteenth century, was replaced by an ‘Islamic Awakening’ (Sahwa) that plunged the Middle East and the wider Muslim World into darkness.  Artistic creativity, cultural vibrancy and political experimentation with secular ideologies gave way to a closing of the mind and further curtailment of freethinking and criticism. In the title chapter of her book, Kim Ghattas narrates the exile of the literary scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the assassination of agronomist-turned-writer Farag Foda. Widening the historical angle, she notes that, a few decades earlier, literary icons like Taha Husayn (1889-1973) were also not immune to the wrath of religious zealots.

Ayatollah Khomeini on route to Iran (1979)

Kim Ghattas illustrates the ominous atmosphere that has taken hold of the Middle East with the cold harshness of Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious scholar who had become the face of opposition to the Shah and of the Iranian revolution. Responding to a question what he felt when returning to Iran after more than fifteen years in exile, the cleric’s curt reply was: “hichi” – nothing.  Or the hypocrisy of Saudi King Fahd. Caring more for the gambling tables of Monte Carlo than the prayer mat, he began styling himself as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to underscore the Islamic credentials of the Saudi regime.

One of Black Wave’s merits is that it does not solely focus on the main characters in this drama. Kim Ghattas also includes a cast of secondary players

Saudi architect Sami Angawi

For example, the Saudi architect Sami Anqawi.  Holding a PhD in  Islamic architecture from SOAS, Angawi heads the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. His heartache over the destruction of the old inner city of Mecca symbolizes the deplorable loss of cultural heritage in the wider Muslim world.

Kim Ghattas plots the many connections among lesser political actors, such as those between the Lebanese Shiʽi politician Hussein al-Husseini, the cleric Musa al-Sadr, and Mostafa Chamran, an Iranian physicist who briefly served as the first post-revolutionary defence minister only to die two years later on the battlefield during the bloody Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). She does not shy away from conjecture and speculation. What if al-Sadr had not vanished in Libya in 1978? Would a movement like Hezbollah have had a chance to emerge and replace Amal as the main political representative of Lebanon’s Shiʽites? Would even the Iranian revolution have unfolded the way it did?

Musa al-Sadr (l.) & Mostafa Chamran (r., with glasses)
Or take Maarouf Dawalibi, a former prime minister of Syria turned lackey of the Al Saud regime. After the military coup of General  Zia ul-Haq in 1977, Riyadh sent him to Pakistan to orchestrate the country's new Islamization policies. Among other disastrous outcomes, it caused the unleashing of a South Asian variant of sectarian confrontations, epitomized by the slogan ‘Shia Kafir’, whereby Pakistanis were turned on each other. Meanwhile the frontier town of Peshawar on the border with Afghanistan hosted a veritable Who-is-Who of Jihadism. Here not only future al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahiri set up shop, appearances were made by Muhammad Islambouli, brother of Sadat assassin Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian Islamist ideologue whose writings inspired IS and who himself had a family connection with one of the Mecca siege ringleaders.

In MBS: The Rise to Power of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Ben  Hubbard too showcases not just a royal drama of Shakespearian proportions. Despite the title, this book is not so much a biography of the current heir apparent, as a sketch of the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia that nobody had thought possible five years ago. It deals not only with the battle of the titans for the Saudi throne, but also what is taking place behind the scenes of the rivalry within the dynasty’s top echelons. 

Hubbard maps how a presumed upstart princeling outmanoeuvred his own well-established and very powerful uncles and cousins. Part of an explanation lies in the fact that the crown prince’s father, King Salman, had served not only for many decades as governor of the Riyadh province. He was also the head of the Al Saud family council. In that role he was not simply the enforcer of internal discipline, keeping all princes in line in order to protect the integrity of the dynasty from challenges, internal and external, Salman also knew about the skeletons in everybody’s closet.

Crown Prince Mohammed with his father King Salman
As Prince Mohammed became increasingly close to his father, he put that information to good use when pushing his older and experienced cousin Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN) out of the way, deposing him as crown prince and taking away his job as minister of interior in the Summer of 2017. The coup de grace came in early 2020,  when MBS had MBN arrested, together with Salman’s last surviving full brother, Prince Ahmad.

The same is probably true for the wave of arrests on corruption charges that had taken place in the Fall of 2017, in which dozens of princes, businessmen and former ministers were rounded up to be kept in the capital's Ritz-Carlton hotel as 'guests of the king'. There they were detained until they had settled with the new anti-corruption Czar: MBS himself (often by signing away their assets and fortunes). While sending shockwaves and instilling fear in the country's elites, the move made the new heir apparent tremendously popular with Saudi Arabia's youthful population, who regard him as one of theirs.

The individual meteoric rise of a minor second-generation prince from the 'Sudairi Seven' lineage may have caught many more senior princes off guard and surprised outside observers. However, for quite a while, members of MBS's entourage had been preparing the ground for this power struggle in which the new possibilities of IT technology were exploited to the fullest: Most prominently, the computer-savvy commoner Saud al-Qahtani. Working in the Royal Court since the early 2000s, he eventually became the Saudi equivalent of Steve Barron in the US or Boris Johnson’s spin doctor Dominic Cummings. With money not being an issue, al-Qahtani purchased or had spyware developed with which Saudi Arabia was turned into a virtual surveillance society, complete with troll armies to harass regime critics and advocates of change on other terms than those initiated by the new de facto ruler. Al-Qahtani’s hackers even broke into the phones of tech industry giants such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Saud al-Qahtani & Mohammed bin Salman
This is what was taking place behind the screens of the public façade that MBS was erecting. Creating an image of himself as not merely an audacious religious reformer who dared to take on Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment by defanging the hated ‘religious police’ and insisting with a straight face that there was no such thing as Wahhabism. He also postured as a self-styled visionary and futurist. With a nod to Dave Eggers, in the chapters ‘A Hologram for the Crown Prince Part one and Two’, Hubbard discusses MBS’s plans for a hi-tech new megacity in the Red Sea region; a castle in the sky combining a fantasy of grandiose proportions with the most banal designation: Combining ‘neo, Latin for “new”, with mustaqbal, meaning “future” in Arabic, [MBS] shrank the name to NEOM’ (169).



The royal rivalries, megalomaniac development schemes, and ill-conceived foreign adventures in Syria and Yemen are paralleled by simultaneous repressive measures against activists and critics.

These include women rights campaigner Loujain Al-Hathloul and her husband, stand-up Fahd Albutairi; religious dissident such as  Salman al-Awda (Ouda) and Ahmed al-Ghamdi, who surprised his former colleagues in the General Presidency for the Propagation of Virtue & Prevention of Vice by appearing on TV with his wife; and Saudi bloggers Omar Abdulaziz and Raif Badawi

Loujain al-Hathloul & Fahd Albutairi
Ahmed al-Ghamdi & his wife

At least as central to the book as the figure of MBS is Jamal Khashoggi, who also makes frequent appearances in Black WaveSingling out the Khashoggi case comes as no surprise, because he was personally known to both writers.

If the crown prince features as the protagonist, then the Medina-born journalist is cast in the role of the antagonist. It sets the stage for a drama pitching a grandson of the kingdom's founder against a grandson of the latter's personal physician; a scion of a dynasty hailing from the deep interior of the Arabian Peninsula versus an intellectual of Ottoman descent from the cosmopolitan Hijaz.

Both Ghattas and Hubbard note Khashoggi’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood and early admiration for Osama bin Laden when reporting from Afghanistan in the 1980s. They ponder the ambiguities surrounding his repeated firing from editorial positions with the Saudi media and his simultaneous closeness to royals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal. Khashoggi not only followed this former head of the Saudi intelligence service on his assignment as ambassador to Washington, his newspaper columns often were a mix of loyalty to and mild criticism of the monarchy’s politics.

Jamal Khashoggi reporting from Afghanistan in the 1980s
Things changed dramatically for Khashoggi as he became increasingly uneasy about the Monster of Frankenstein into which the manipulation of religion for political purposes had morphed. While during the 1980s, it seemed to serve a purpose in Afghanistan and in the Iraq-Iran war, political Islam eventually spiralled out of control, escaping from the puppet masters' hands. It turned the post-9/11 Muslim world  into a depressing scene of political instability, religious polarization, social disintegration and outright civil war.

Jamal Khashoggi

Unable to hold his tongue, but finding the usual outlets in Saudi Arabia closed to him, in late 2017, Khashoggi went into voluntary exile in the USA, where he continued to write commentaries for the Washington Post on developments in the Arab World. He was dead within the year.

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