Books on Islam, Part 2
The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of Saudi Arabia – Said K. Aburish
Hatred’s Kingdom – Dore Gold
Terror’s Source – Vincenzo Olivetti
Wahhabism: A Critical Essay – Hamid Algar
The Saudis – Sandra Mackey
The Siege of Mecca – Yaroslav Trofimov
Saudi Arabia has few friends in the world and that includes the muslim world. The al-Saud family owns the country–every lock, stock and barrel of oil. Since they control the muslim holy sites including Mecca, they believe that they can define Islam for the entire world. However, there are few muslims outside the borders of Saudi Arabia who accept the Saudi version of Islam. This simple fact is not widely appreciated in the non-muslim world because of all the money the Sauds throw around. They have a lot of cash to play with and that gold buys friends, lots of them. They buy countries, newspapers, TV stations, journalists and European members of parliament. Where they cannot buy friends, they buy silence. As a result, their self-image is accepted uncritically in Europe and the United States. They are thought to represent all muslims, whereas in fact they are despised by most of the muslim world.
Said K. Aburish, a Lebanese journalist, considers Abdul Azziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the country that he modestly named after himself, and all his descendants to be corrupt degenerates and a disgrace to Islam. Published in 1995, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud washes all the kingdom’s dirty linen in public, and though the fall predicted by Aburish hasn’t happened yet, after reading his indictment, it’s hard to believe the princes can last much longer. By the way, there are over twenty thousand princes and not one of them has to work for a living. That sounds like an incredible number, but Ibn Saud, the first king, who died in 1953, had 37 sons and they have all been reproducing with similar dedication ever since. You do the math. No one knows how many daughters the old man had because no one kept score. Girls don’t count, but I would guess that their sons are princes. It’s an exponential dynasty.
The financial corruption within this obscenely rich gang of hedonists is almost impossible to believe but Aburish’s charges are confirmed by many other writers. It’s well to remember though, that from the Saud’s point of view, there is no corruption in their country. Since they own everything and everybody, whatever they do is right. When they are not trying to win the most male babies contest, the princes scheme to have their monthly allowances raised. Like every royal family in history, they are clueless, ignorant, arrogant and useless. Said Aburish also indicts them for religious hypocrisy, drinking alcohol and leaving the country during Ramadan, the month of fasting.
Since Aburish is a working journalist, he knows all the dirty details of how the Saudis bribe journalists in the Arab world. He knows who’s on the take, which is basically every writer in every Muslim country. There are two levels of payment. For the basic rate, you only have to avoid criticizing Saudi Arabia. If you want the big bucks though, you have to write articles actually praising the wise rulers of the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia distributes foreign aid to Muslim countries also, and that comes with strings. Countries which want to stay on the dole have to control all media within their borders, in other words, no criticism of you-know-who.
Their reach extends to Europe as well. Aburish claims that they have journalists and politicians on their payroll in all the major countries, a belief shared by many people, although hard proof so far is scarce. However, there is no compelling reason to expect that they would avoid in Europe the tactics that work so well for them in the Muslim world.
Hatred’s Kingdom, by Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, details all the ways in which Saudis pay for terrorist acts all over the world. The author writes passionately and well, but then he and his country are in the center of the bullseye. After you read it (and you should) you will never again feel good about seeing our President shaking hands with a Saudi king.
Vincenzo Olivetti, an Italian Muslim, traces the theological connections between all the radical Muslim groups, which fall under the general heading of Salafist. They have their shades of difference, but all look back to Ibn Tamiya, a viciously intolerant medieval scholar, and they all reject the four schools of Islamic Law, which over the centuries have placed restrictions on jihad. If you can imagine a group of radical orthodox Jews who reject the Talmud, you can get a handle on the fanatics who call themselves Salafist. Each one of them claims the right to be his own rabbi, as it were. This leaves them perfectly free to cherry pick the Koran for the most violent verses, and to ignore all the others that counsel tolerance. Of course the four schools of Islamic Law really end up in the same place, since they observe the doctrine of abrogation, which states that when two verses in the Koran appear to conflict, the latter revelation abrogates, or cancels, the earlier. Unfortunately, in the Koran, the tolerant verses are all early and the violent verses are later.
It makes depressing reading, but it should be remembered that the Salafists are a small minority in the Muslim world. Financial support from Saudi Arabia gives them a bigger voice than they would have otherwise. It is heartening to know that they do have opposition among muslims, including Vincenzo Olivetti.
Wahhabism: A Critical Essay by Hamid Algar, is a short, focused look at the legacy of Muhammad ibn-Abd al-Wahab (born 1703), the Muslim scholar who founded the sect that has become the official religion of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Wahab, who wrote very little, made almost no impression on his contemporaries, with the exception of a sheik named Saud, who offered him protection in return for fatwas, or religious rulings, justifying whatever Saud felt like doing. Most Muslims today consider that this was a bargain between two devils, but it has had long lasting consequences, since the descendants of the two men are still honoring the pact. The Ottoman Empire tried to crush the Saudi/Wahabi threat several times, and appeared to have succeeded, but always some new descendant of Saud charges out of the desert, backed up by followers of al-Wahab. The most recent one, Abdul Azziz ibn Saud, founded the current kingdom, which he modestly named after himself, in 1932. Every king since his death in 1953, has been one of his sons.
Hamid Algar does not even try to conceal his scorn for al-Wahab, and the jabs are sometimes funny, even though this is basically a work of comparative theology. For a non-Muslim, it’s hard to see a great deal of difference between Wahabism and normal Sunni Islam, but those details do not seem small to the true believers. As a case in point, small theological details have caused a lot of wars among Christians over the years. Basically, al-Wahab objected to some customs that had arisen among Muslims that he thought were forbidden by the Koran, such as pilgrimages to the tombs of famous scholars, artistic decoration in mosques, and the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. Sunni Muslims tolerate all those practices, and the Shiites allow a great deal more, but the Wahabi view is the only one allowed in Saudi Arabia. It is important to realize though, that if Saudi petrodollars disappeared tomorrow, Wahabism would return to what it was before 1932: an obscure footnote to the history of Islam.
Algar studied Islam at Cambridge and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. The book also includes some jabs at the United States and Israel, which are irrelevant to his subject, but serve the useful purpose of labeling the author and identifying his prejudices. I’m sure his opinions on Wahabism are worth taking seriously.
Sandra Mackey lived in Saudi Arabia for several years in the eighties when the country was perhaps changing faster than any country has ever changed. Before then it was not medieval, it was pre-medieval. With perhaps more money per person than any country has ever had, the king decided to modernize the country, more or less overnight. It’s hard to say who was most disoriented, the foreign workers who poured in, or the locals.
In The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, Mackey describes her part of this whirlwind, with a very keen eye for the human dimension. She knew very little about Islam before arriving in the kingdom and never shows much interest in religion. This doesn’t harm her book at all. Her focus is always on the people and since Islam affects every aspect of daily life there, the effect of religion is always evident. She tells her story like all good travel writers, by anecdote. Certainly much has changed since she left, but I’m sure the things she noticed: the oppression of women; the privileges of the royals; and the unimaginable corruption have not abated at all.
In 1979, while Sandra Mackey was in the country, hundreds of fanatics seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest shrine in Islam. To the Saudi people and to Muslims worldwide, this event could be compared to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor put together. The event was so embarrassing to the royal family that they instituted a total media blackout. As a result, there was very little coverage at the time and the attack has never been widely known in the non-Muslim world. The repercussions, however, still affect the entire planet. For several days after the takeover, the King was paralyzed. The Muslim world was frantic for news of what was going on, but the blackout continued. The king couldn’t order an armed response because it is forbidden to use force of any kind in the Grand Mosque. After a great deal of discussion, the Ulema (the leading Islamic scholars) finally issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that allowed Saudi soldiers to retake the mosque, but they drove a hard bargain. One of their demands was that the Saudi government start spending a huge percentage of the country’s oil income to promote Wahabism throughout the world. On that day began the avalanche of hate-filled propaganda that is still suffocating Islam in every country. Books, websites, new mosques, orphanages, schools (madrassas) began to multiply in every country on earth, not just the Muslim ones. Most dangerous of all are the salaries paid to the mullahs or imams. In every country on earth, a mullah willing to toe the Saudi line receives a subsidy. It can double his income. Sometimes it is his only income. And the Wahabi message is very clear. Jews are the sons of pigs and monkeys and must all be killed. Israel must be wiped off the map. Western countries must be taken over by Islam. All criticism of Islam anywhere must stop. Violence and lies are acceptable if they work.
This world-wide propaganda campaign resembles in many ways the propaganda struggle during the cold war between Russia and the United States, but there are two glaring differences. One, the Saudis are spending a lot more money than the Russians ever did, and Two, the United States is not fighting back this time. Not surprisingly, we are losing badly. To gain clarity on this issue, it is necessary to know how it began.
In The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine, Yaroslav Trofimov, a veteran journalist for the Wall Street Journal, uncovers the astounding facts about the battle that changed Islam forever, facts that the Saudi government is still trying to suppress. He talked to soldiers who fought for the army and even found a few survivors from among the rebels, most of whom were beheaded. It is a gripping story of brutal close combat that lasted weeks, most of it in the endless tunnels under the Grand Mosque. At the time, because the Saudis were saying nothing, disinformation predominated, mainly coming from Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini announced that the United States and Israel were behind the attack. This was of course false, but mobs all over the Islamic world attacked U.S. embassies and the one in Pakistan was burned. The fact that nearly all the rebels were Saudi citizens who considered their royal family to be corrupt degenerates is still deeply embarrassing to the the Saudi government. Non-Muslims need to know this story and Trofimov tells it very well.