Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

Transacting with Riyadh

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and President Trump in the Oval Office, March 14, 2017 (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
We do not share values with the Saudi regime

‘We’ve defeated ISIS.” So said President Trump in a recent Associated Press interview. Not for the first time was the president’s exuberance overstated. Military officials quickly added the qualification that the Islamic State’s end appears to be near but it is not yet vanquished.

Welcome news all the same. News that would naturally lead one to ask: Does the dismantling of the jihadist network mean, finally, an end to the brutal enforcement of sharia? Can we close the book on savage beheadings intended to terrorize and to inculcate compliance with a literalist, scripturally based construction of Muslim law, set in stone — or is it stoning? — a millennium ago?

Not a chance. If you are, say, a homosexual, an unmarried woman innocently commingling with non-related men, a Christian who has apostatized from Islam, or even a believing Muslim who questions the ancient consensus on some aspect of Islamic doctrine, you know the peril of decapitation has never been limited to precincts of Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State imposed its caliphate. Beheadings are still routinely conducted in Saudi Arabia, by the governing regime. In fact, for particularly heinous offenses, the regime directs that decapitation be followed by display of the corpse, hung from a horizontal pole along with the severed head in a plastic bag, a practice publicly referred to as “crucifixion.”

And yes, the regime we are speaking of is the same Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that the United States government has long deemed a valuable ally.

The Trump administration so values the Saudis, as both a strategic partner and a lucrative client for military arms, that it has made the alliance the plinth of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Not only was Riyadh the site chosen for President Trump’s first foreign visit; in a major speech there in May 2017, the president maintained that “principled realism” — his coinage for the administration’s professed America-first approach to international affairs — is rooted in the “common values” said to be held by the U.S. and the House of Saud.

Close monitors of radical Islam worry that principled realism is not very realistic. Not for nothing did 15 of the 19 mass-murdering 9/11 hijackers hail from Saudi Arabia. There are reasons al-Qaeda so readily drew on the kingdom for moral and financial sustenance.

What is variously called “radical Islam,” Islamism, “political Islam,” or “Islamic extremism” (and don’t you dare ask what it is that they’re so extreme about) is better diagnosed as sharia supremacism. It is an ideology aimed at imposing the tenets of Islamic civilization and law, the necessary precondition for establishing Islamic societies.

Sharia is not merely a legal code. It is a comprehensive political and social framework that systematically discriminates against women and non-Muslims. Notice, for example, that President Trump gave his ballyhooed speech in Riyadh rather than Mecca or Medina. That is because, as a non-Muslim, the president of the United States is deemed unfit, under sharia strictures derived from Koranic verse, to step foot in Islam’s two sacralized cities.

Islam marks the Hijra, the migration of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina, as the start of time (the year was a.d. 622). Each of these cities features a mosque — al-Haram in Mecca and al-Nabawi in Medina — that believers regard as fundamental to the faith. More than in oil wealth, the Saudi king’s prestige in the umma — the notional worldwide community of Muslims — lies in his status as “Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques.” His kingdom, the birthplace of the prophet, is the cradle of Islam. There, Allah’s law, sharia, was revealed, and there it is vigorously enforced.

Common values with America? Sharia is authoritarian in the sense that it is imposed by the caliphate (the Islamic state) on its subjects: In theory, faithful enforcement of sharia makes the Saudi regime the sovereign, Allah’s representative on earth; the Saudi people are subjects bound to obey, not citizens entitled to make demands on a representative government. Sharia, moreover, is totalitarian in the sense that it really does aspire to control all facets of human life, great and trivial: governance, the use of force, restrictions on speech and property rights, interaction between the sexes, the arts, apparel, even hygiene. As illustrated by the beheadings, compliance with sharia strictures is compelled by often-brutal standards of crime and punishment.

Sharia is innately aggressive, calling on Muslims to spread Allah’s law until the world is under its dominion. When we speak of “moderate” versus “extremist” Islam, we are mostly talking about the zeal with which this obligation is taken up. What’s more, sharia is also hostile to the West. This is not a posture; it is inherent. Fundamentalist Islam — and it doesn’t get more fundamentalist than Saudi Wahhabism — understands sharia, “the path,” to be Allah’s beneficent dictate of the good, the roadmap to human flourishing. Western principles and institutions, with their elevation of free will, freedom of conscience, and individual liberty, are seen as licentious, innately pernicious deviations from the path.

So exactly what values does the sharia-supremacist kingdom hold in common with the Western superpower? The cognitive dissonance of any “realism” premised on such a conceit was illustrated powerfully in early October, when Saudi operatives brazenly murdered the well-known columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

Khashoggi appeared regularly on the opinion pages of the Washington Post, a bastion of Islamist-friendly transnational progressivism. When he disappeared under deeply suspicious circumstances — i.e., after being seen entering the Saudi consulate but never exiting — it became mainstream-media protocol to refer to him as a “dissident journalist.” That is, it was verboten to mention Khashoggi’s long history as an unabashed Islamist. A grandson of the personal physician to King Abdulaziz al-Saud, the kingdom’s founder, Medina-born Khashoggi was for decades a friend of Osama bin Laden, scion of another family with top-tier House of Saud ties. In the weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance, it became rote to ob­serve that he broke with al-Qaeda’s emir after the 9/11 attacks; left unmentioned was that 9/11 was the culmination of a series of attacks orchestrated by bin Laden against American interests over the better part of a decade.

Any allusion to Khashoggi’s sharia-supremacist roots was denounced by the Western press as a “blame the victim” rationalization of the Saudi atrocity — which, if not for the dolorous circumstances, would be amusing to many of us longtime critics of the Saudi regime and the U.S. government’s indulgence of it.

To understand what happened here, it is necessary to grasp that Khashoggi was a Muslim Brotherhood enthusiast (he was cagey about whether he was a formal member). In fact, one of his last Post columns was a lament about “the United States’s aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Consistent with the organization’s seduction of Western opinion elites, Khashoggi maintained that the Brotherhood instantiated “democracy” and was the solution to terrorism. As ever, the Brotherhood’s ideology was labeled “political Islam,” a euphemism that obscures its sharia-based incompatibility with — and therefore demands for accommodation by — Western political systems. Naturally, Khashoggi never got around to explaining how a solution to terrorism manages to breed so many terrorists.

The Brotherhood was founded in Egypt after World War I. For decades after its members fled from persecution following an unsuccessful 1954 assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser, they found a soft place to land in Saudi Arabia. In the backwards kingdom, the Brothers were a useful, sophisticated lot who stressed education and whose Sunni fundamentalism, while more nuanced, worked in easy cooperation with Wahhabist authorities. When the kingdom became oil-rich, its resources combined with Brotherhood know-how made the propagation of sharia supremacism a lucrative global enterprise. Its march through the campus, the media, and popular culture has been more effective and enduring than the jihadist terrorism it leverages by playing “the moderate.”

But then came the “Arab Spring.” The Saudis looked on in anguish as the Brotherhood exploited the tide of revolution and language of democracy activism to supplant their Egyptian ally, the Mubarak regime. To pull off the coup, the Brothers worked effectively with more radical Islamist elements and took support and inspiration from their allies in Iran — the Saudis’ bitter Shiite rival, with whom they are fighting vicious proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Perceiving that they could be the next Sunni despots on the menu, the Saudis turned decisively against the Brotherhood. Riyadh strongly supported the 2013 military coup that ousted the Brotherhood government in Egypt. In 2014, Saudi Arabia designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

In the interim, the Brotherhood’s strongest supporter in the region has been Turkey. There, Ataturk’s secular democracy has been strangled by the sharia supremacism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Brotherhood devotee whose quip “Democracy is like a train: When you reach your stop, you get off” perfectly states the modus operandi of “political Islam.” The Saudis’ rivalry with Turkey traces back generations, to the Ottoman domination of the Arabs. It has been exacerbated in recent times by Erdogan’s intimacy with the Brotherhood and his alliance with Iran against the separatist ambitions of the Kurds.

Unlike the Western media, the Saudis did not see Khashoggi as a “dissident journalist.” They saw him as treasonous — a Saudi subject who publicly scolded the regime on behalf of the its enemies. In Saudi Arabia, such people are routinely persecuted.

You needn’t take my word for it. The Trump administration’s own State De­partment admonishes Americans pondering a trip to the kingdom that Saudi authorities tolerate criticism of the royal family no more than of Islam; those who violate such strictures “may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned, subject to physical punishments, or even executed.”

From the Saudis’ perspective, then, in killing Khashoggi they did away with a traitor who abetted the enemy Brother­hood at the regime’s expense; and they did it in Turkey in part because the opportunity presented itself and in part to provoke a despised rival.

Pace Khashoggi’s admirers, to point this out is not to rationalize but to emphasize the Saudis’ barbarity. It is to elucidate the farce of regarding as a vital American ally the world’s leading state propagator of sharia supremacism, a regime that uses the international-law sanctuary of a consulate to murder in cold blood a critic who, whatever one thinks of his politics, was a lawful immigrant to our country — a “U.S. person” under American law.

We do not have common values with the regime in Riyadh. We are an un­matched pair, drawn reluctantly together by some common interests and enemies — which tend to be interests and enemies for saliently different reasons. We cannot avoid interaction, and better that it be cooperative than belligerent. It should, however, be strictly transactional, and there is no good reason to pretend it is anything but.

In This Issue



Education Section

Books, Arts & Manners


Music Too

Robert Dean Lurie reviews Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, by Dorothy Carvello.




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