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HomeOpinionsBoldest pushback to radical Islam is coming from the most unexpected quarters: Saudi Arabia

Boldest pushback to radical Islam is coming from the most unexpected quarters: Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holiest shrines of Islam, Mecca & Medinah, is often seen as the guardian of modern Islamic world. It has been associated with puritanical religious values of Islam. However Saudi Arabia, under its ruling dispensation, took a conscious turn towards “Wahhabism” some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. Wahhabism, advocating strict enforcement of radical Islam, actually developed in the 18th century and has no direct connection with the Islam of the distant past, as practiced across Arabia. Wahhabism coupled with violent impulses of Salafism, has been the main source feeding into the global terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. That probably explains the paradox that modern commentators often stare at.

And the paradox being that while most Islamic scholars, with deep rooted knowledge of the subject, advocate that Islam has no place for terrorism and extremism, yet we see a host of global terrorist and Jihadist outfits wreaking havoc across the world, in the name of Islam. Well the scholars are right after all. These terror factories feed from the radical and aggressive teachings of Wahhabism and Salafism and not from Islam of the distant past. Wahhabism, sprang up as part of various revivalist movements across the Islamic world during the the 18th century, as imperial Islamic powers began losing peripheral territories to various challengers. Wahhabism derives its name from its chief proponent, Muhammad Ibn al-Wahab (1703-1791). It was chiefly driven by a reformist zeal founded on the belief that if Muslims were to regain lost power and glory, they must return to the fundamentals of their faith, rather than worldly ambitions. It did not talk of jihad or subjugation of others. But as with most reformist movements, it was soon hijacked by the clique of rulers and Ulemas (priests class) who just harped on the aggressive part of the message. 

The reformist Wahhabism merged with the more aggressive Salafist movement, developed in Egypt and imported into Saudi during the reign of King Faisal. While Wahhabism harped mainly on da’wa (preaching/evangelizing) to change society, Salafism advocates violence as a tool to bring the change. This cocktail of Salafism and Wahhabism came to be interpreted as a call for violence, mainly by proponents of global Jihad and terrorism across the world. Successive generations of the Saudi ruling family chose to look at this explosive cocktail rather sympathetically, as it suited them to keep the country under their stranglehold and to justify meddling across the larger Islamic world (Iran, Yemen etc) to further their global ambitions.

After the failed uprising in Saudi Arabia, against the ruling Saud family in the 1970s, the rulers of Saudi Arabia brokered peace by allowing aggressive export of Salafist inspired Wahhabism across the world, supported by its swelling coffer of petro dollars, as long as these forces did not meddle in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia. Most proponents of violent Salafist Islam, that Saudi encouraged, were actually foreigners, mainly Egyptians. It mollified Ulemas within Saudi by strict adherence to puritanical Islam which forbade even driving of cars by women, public executions, no music strictures etc. It was this Saudi supported and Salafist-Wahhabism inspired Islam, that led to springing of seminaries across the world and rapid radicalization across the Islamic world. Most modern Muslim terrorist outfits like the Al Qaedas, ISIS, LET, JEM etc. were inspired and supported by this backbone advocating violence as a tool to establish Islam’s supremacy.

But this strategy of Saudi could not prevent it from getting singed by the fires that they actively supported outside. After the global crackdown against Jihadi terrorism intensified in the post 9/11 world, many of these radicals started coming back to Saudi. A tightly controlled society with very limited individual liberty, soon started seeing terrorist activities, which the state controlled media could no longer sweep under the carpet. In its Arab neighborhood, it recently witnessed modern Muslim countries like Iraq and Yemen, almost driven to a rubble under the brutal wave of jihadi terrorism by the likes of ISIS. With the global push towards cleaner energy in the new millennia, its vast petroleum reserves started yielding lesser and lesser returns and its economy started showing signs of faltering after a long bullish run. In a connected world of SM, the clamor for civil rights and individual liberty  became increasingly harder to suppress. The writing was on the wall for the Saudi rulers and the time to act was fast running out. Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), heir to the throne, decided to take the bull by the horns some five years back, to restore civil liberties and to wean away the economy from its excessive dependence on Oil exports. 

MBS has managed to enforce the most sweeping social changes in the Saudi society in its modern history. It includes the following-

Allowing women to drive – Saudi allowed women to drive only in 2017. While it may sound almost like a natural thing to do, but Saudi women waited for more than 30 years to achieve this small liberty. 

Changing female guardianship norms – Saudis amended their laws to allow women to travel, live and work alone without the need to be accompanied by a male guardian. Again a seemingly minor reform maybe for the liberal democracies, but a huge step in Saudi society. 

Easing restrictions on music and entertainment – Saudi allowed restaurants and cafes to play live music and hold stand up comedy shows in 2017 without fearing punishment from the religious police. Last fortnight, Saudi held a “Rave in desert” music festival where men and women were allowed to dance and mingle freely for the first time. Almost 0.2 million people participated, giving a convincing thumbs up to the reform. Our very own Sallu bhai (Salman Khan) performed live in Saudi for the first time. Reviving of cinemas is also happening in Saudi. 

Easing of visa restrictions and allowing Israel to fly over its air space – Saudi only issued work, business and pilgrimage visa. In 2019 for the first time, it allowed tourists to come in by issuing e visas to citizens of 49 countries. Tourists can now acquire multiple entry visa valid for a year. It will definitely give a push to nascent tourism industry and provide one more source of revenue, reducing its over dependence on oil revenues.  Saudi also recently allowed Israel’s commercial planes to fly over its air space. Again a seemingly routine allowance, but seen thru the prism of M.E. tensions, a huge step towards normalization of relationship with Israel. 

Banning of Tablighi Jamaat – Last but certainly not the least, we come to the step which has most significant ramifications for peace and stability across the sub continent, and a decision which has caused most heart burn amongst the leli (left liberal or shall I say pseudo liberal) lobby in India. Saudi Arabia surprised the world by banning Tablighi Jamaat, a sect preaching puritanical Islam and active mainly in the subcontinent and parts of SE Asia. The jamaat might undergo slow extinction as its funds will dry up after its patron-in chief has banned it. Tablighi philosophy is taught in many seminaries across Pakistan which form fertile recruitment grounds for Pak’s terror outfits. 

I referred to Saudi Arabia in my blog title, as the most “unexpected” quarter to mount a challenge against jihadist and violent version of Islam. Unexpected, because it would have been natural for a gullible world citizen to expect that the challenge to the jihadism and terrorism emanating from within Islam, would come, if it ever did, from the liberal free world and votaries of civil rights and liberty across modern democracies. The last thing one would have expected was a Saudi ruling prince to fast track such sweeping reforms across  his county and stand firm against all opposing it both within and without. It indeed takes nerves of steel to go against the flow and take on the entrenched interests both within the clergy and the ruling family. His bold stand is in stark contrast to the leli’s pusillanimity and capitulation in the face jihadist pressure.

In US and Europe and India, killings, stabbings, rioting and even terror attacks in the name of jihadist Islam are routinely brushed over, justified and normalized by the largely left leaning media and intellectual lobby. So Mumbai attacks and Parliament attacks by Pak terrorists were justified because the Babri structure was demolished. Left ideology and jihadist have forged a long standing alliance across the liberal world to subvert, terrorize and hijack instruments of democracy from within. Both ideologies are top driven and brook no dissent and are known to ruthlessly crush it. It is indeed ironical that these heartless lefties driven by some unknown utopia which would never be, operate under the garb of liberalism, while being most illiberal themselves.

During early part of COVID spread in India, Tablighis were responsible, deliberately or otherwise, of congregations and unrestricted travel in the times of strict lockdowns and contributed to widening and hastening of early Covid spread. Yet the lelis across MSM, judiciary and polity could not bring themselves to even utter a few lines of condemnation against their reckless behavior. Contrast this to Saudi statement calling Tablighi Jamaat as the gateway of terror when banning it. Calling a spade a spade is a rarity esp. when it concerns radicalism and jihadism within Islam. That is why Saudi action is even more awe inspiring and praise worthy. They say that a picture speaks louder than a thousand words. Recent images of Muslims desperately clinging to aero plane tyres, to escape from jihadist impulses of Taliban’s Islam and the recent Saudi actions have jolted the liberals and progressives in the Islamic world to the perils of violent jihadi impulses. The call for liberalization a in Islam will emerge from within its folds and Saudi actions might have set the ball rolling for irreversible and perhaps welcome changes in Islamic world.   

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