a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Worth reading: Lebanon edition

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd July 2006

I am a Jew (NYCEve, Daily Kos diarist); I am a Muslim (Aziz Poonawalla, “City of Brass”) — Eve and Aziz write from the heart about the Israel/Lebanon crisis, being Americans, and the importance of homelands. Excerpts from NYCEve’s post:

That Israel is aligned with the people I most despise forces me to recognize that Jews are at best tolerated, mostly unwanted by pretty much everyone–except that is, Christian evangelicals who voice support for their own misguided and nefarious reasons.

This sad reality is still true many years after eight million were murdered. Anti-semitism is flourishing throughout the world. We escape the sting of it in the United States. But to deny its existence and that American Jews are blessed to live in a country that still treats us with relative decency, is to ignore the obvious

I live in New York, a city where I don’t feel as if I need to conceal my identity. But when I leave New York–an hour in any direction, even in the United States of America–I often recognize that though I am an American, being openly Jewish might engender an unwelcome encounter […]

I’d like to deny it, but I know my destiny is linked to the survival of Israel. When an El El 747 touches down at Ben Gurion Airport, the tradition is for the cabin to be filled with the plaintive, mournful sound of the Israeli national anthem. Even, nyceve, a very assimilated American Jew, sheds a tear or two when I hear that music and I am reminded of our terrible history.

… from Aziz’s responding post:

So what is it to be an American muslim? NYCeve speaks of rising anti-semitism in the world, and of how “being openly Jewish might engender an unwelcome encounter.” I am not a victim – but I think that muslims in America have more to fear than Jews do. Do you think that the attitudes at LGF are fringe? I surf the red-sphere every day; I contribute at RedState; I live in Texas and listen to the callers on talk radio. Muslims are the new Jews in the US. How much longer can I say that the religious freedom which permits my faith to flourish here as no where else, will persist? […]

But Jews do have Israel, a strong (nuclear-armed) state supported by a superpower. They are well and truly safe there, a safety that no Katyusha or suicide bomber can really threaten – those are the tools of fear alone and the Jews have long ago learned that fear can be overcome. I wish the American public faced the fear of terrorism with half the composure that Israelis do – we might be sacrificing fewer of our own society’s basic principles of liberty were it so.

Muslims in the middle east have nothing like Israel. Ordinary muslims are always caught between terrorists, tyrants, mullahs, and madmen, and now – the wrath of Israel as well. Lebanese people, who have no control over Hizbollah, who have just escaped decades of civil war, and only recently in the Cedar Revolution thrown off the yoke of Syrian dominance and seized their destinies for themselves – are being killed. Why?

… and from the comments to Aziz’ identical post at Daily Kos:

azizhp, really excellent diary . . . (94+ / 0-)
I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
You raise some extremely important issues.
Thank you.
— by nyceve on Tue Jul 18, 2006 at 07:14:38 AM PDT

* I almost didnt post this (104+ / 0-)
I really dont want you to feel I am attacking you at all. I cant express how hesitant I am nowadays. It seems like every sentence – no matter how carefully crafted, only delivers pain. You really eased my mind a bit with your comment – thank you.
— by azizhp on Tue Jul 18, 2006 at 07:16:28 AM PDT

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBloodthirsty Children or Media Missiles (Michael Shaw, “Bag News Notes”); Emily Litella Speaks Out on the Situation in the Middle East (Jonathan Schwarz, “A tiny revolution”) — The photo on the right is among a series by several news agencies taken near an artillery position in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shamona. (A Guardian reporter writes about the circumstances here.*) The two posts address its implications in different ways.

In keeping with his blog’s focus, Shaw is fascinated with the propaganda and visual implications of this and other photos of these children signing artillery shells. He also investigates the photojournalism involved, culminating with the discovery of this less well known photo, more clearly showing the staged, exploited nature of what happened — for whatever that’s worth. In the process, he cites Schwarz’s post — but rather misses its point, I think, claiming Schwarz “analogizes” Arab and Israeli kids as “sick killers.” Schwarz had written:

…Sadly, until the Arabs let go of their culture of incitement and rage, I’m afraid there’s no concession Israel can ever make that will bring peace with these people.

What’s that?
Those aren’t Lebanese girls writing on Hezbollah rockets, but Israeli girls writing on Israeli shells?
Never mind.

As I wrote at Bag News Notes, there is (or was, it’s been a while since I’ve looked) a frequent feature on the right wing Little Green Footballs (LGF) blog site called “Palestinian child abuse.” It involves showing photos — and, sadly, authentic ones — of West Bank, Gaza, etc. kids dressed in suicide bomber mockups, or in military garb, etc. I think Schwarz was simply pointing out that the impulse to indoctrinate kids with hatred and/or use them for propaganda purposes is not as one-sided as sites like LGF imply.

Syria, the Model (Jim Henley, “Unqualified Offerings”) — Henley observes that the two most dangerous places to be in the Arab world right now are democracies the Bush administration was once pleased to take credit for. While Iraq is clearly failing to secure its borders and maintain order,

…[t]he Lebanese lesson is even more dire: American speech and action since Israel began retaliating for Hezbollah’s prisoner grab announces that democracy gains an Arab state exactly no leverage when Arab and Israeli interests collide. […]

People would, literally, rather be in Syria. It’s where everyone from Lebanon that can afford to leave is trying to get. […]

The bomb them free crowd has made the work of liberalizing the Middle East much harder than it needed to be.

* Pointed out by Nell Lancaster in a comment at Bag News Notes.

Posted in Post | 5 Comments »

What Israel is doing is wrong

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th July 2006

For a short while last week, before I understood the scope of the Israeli attacks, I supported them. The attack on and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was an act of war by Hezbollah, an organization (or elements of it) that had no business sticking out the rest of Lebanon’s neck for it. Despite hopeful signs in Lebanon, this was also but the latest in a string of serious provocations by Hezbollah since the “Cedar Revolution” that only failed to be lethal by good luck, Israeli resistance, and/or poor execution.

So I felt that striking back at Hezbollah military targets — their rockets, headquarters, and so forth — was legitimate, and I even thought wrecking Beirut Airport runways and some bridges in South Lebanon was not an outrageous way of both slowing the kidnappers and of getting the rest of Lebanon’s undivided attention, so long as civilians were not injured.

But it’s clear to me now that Israeli government does not care enough about minimizing collateral damage, probably never was merely aiming to slow kidnappers, and is waging a wholly disproportionate war on Lebanon as a whole. From the Irish Times, via Juan Cole (“Informed Comment”):

The civilian toll continued to mount in Lebanon yesterday as Israeli planes struck dozens of targets. Nine civilians, including two children, were killed when they were hit by a missile that struck a bridge in the southern port city of Sidon. In the southern city of Tyre , rescue workers pulled nine more bodies from the civil defence building that was hit on Sunday in an Israeli strike.

Close to 200 civilians have been killed in Lebanon since the Israeli offensive began last week, when Hizbullah attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing three soldiers and capturing two. Five more soldiers were killed when they gave chase into Lebanon .

I understand and support Israel’s efforts not to be subjected to missile barrages or border raids, but what they’re doing is grossly excessive collective punishment. Ehud Olmert is writing a shameful chapter in Israel’s history.

Posted in Post | 10 Comments »

Dubai Ports World

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th February 2006

Writing for “The Nation,” William Greider has himself a good laugh about Bush’s demagoguery coming home to roost:

David Brooks, the high-minded conservative pundit, dismissed the Dubai Ports controversy as an instance of political hysteria that will soon pass. He was commenting on PBS, and I thought I heard a little quaver in his voice when he said this was no big deal. Brooks consulted “the experts,” and they assured him there’s no national security risk in a foreign company owned by Middle East Muslims–actually, by an Arab government–managing six major American ports. Cool down, people. This is how the world works in the age of globalization.

Of course, he is correct. […]

Greider concludes:

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?
Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it.

Unlike digby, I’d say this is only partly right. Fearmonger-in-chief: check. Many fears are bogus, inflated: check. Bush knows that at some level: check. But specific concerns about the Dubai Port deal being inflated and bogus: well… how does Greider know? How does Bush know? How do any of us know? Is it unreasonable to want to find out? Maybe Greider, Kevin Drum, digby (“right on the money“), and others are right to think this is nothing more than political poetic justice, but I’m less sanguine about the merits of allowing the sale to go forward.

A recent Zogby/AAI poll* indicates overwhelmingly negative opinions towards the United States in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Dubai Ports World is based. Arguably deservedly so — the reasons given are American mistreatment of Arabs and the Iraq war. So I’m willing to stipulate, for the sake of argument, that 99% of Dubai Port employees and management back at the home office are superb human beings who I’d be lucky and honored to have dinner with. That still leaves awkward facts like two UAE 9/11 hijackers and members of the UAE royal family reportedly joining a hunting party with Bin Laden in Afghanistan back in 1999.

I’m assured, and do not doubt, that DP World will have to work with U.S. customs, Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials day in, day out at these American ports. Why the latter should fill me with confidence is beyond me, but again, let’s assume everyone’s doing a heckuva job for the sake of argument.

What one still has is a company that literally has bought the keys to America’s front door, and that is based in and owned by a government and a Wahhabist aristocratic ruling class with a few strikes against it. You would think government ownership of a port facility ought to be against conservative and free-market principles, the more so when the government itself is an unaccountable family affair. But what do I know.

I’m asked to believe ownership of these port facilities would pose no additional risk to Americans. Yet ownership, at least to me, means Dubai Port board member, vice president, or upper management man X would have a substantially easier time observing customs and homeland security procedures, monitoring shipments, manipulating port records, and/or arranging physical access to these ports than he did before the sale. X and/or his angry young cousin, that is: the same AAI poll indicates people there consider nepotism the most important reason jobs are hard to find in the UAE.

But again, what do I know. Maybe “things don’t work that way”; maybe the emir of Dubai himself will not be able to pull up a chair and download the shipping records and inspection protocols for Dubai Port World’s operations in Philadelphia. Show me — and because I won’t believe you the first time, show me again and try harder.

To call that racist or “anti-Arab,” as variously Rush Limbaugh, Tom Friedman, and the Arab American Institute do, is to drain that word of all meaning. There are good reasons to want to know who exactly controls Dubai Ports World, and what safeguards, if any, stand between us and a “Bin Laden II” using this company’s access to American ports to his advantage.

Writing for Wired Magazine (and excerpted at his blog), security expert Bruce Schneier makes sense:

Pull aside the rhetoric, and this is everyone’s point. There are those who don’t trust the Bush administration and believe its motivations are political. There are those who don’t trust the UAE because of its terrorist ties — two of the 9/11 terrorists and some of the funding for the attack came out of that country — and those who don’t trust it because of racial prejudices. There are those who don’t trust security at our nation’s ports generally and see this as just another example of the problem.

And there are those of us so far gone as to not trust the Bush administration, the UAE’s ruling class, and our nation’s port security, all at the same time. Schneier concludes:

The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn’t compromise security, voters — at least the particular lawmakers we trust — need to understand that.

Now that’s “right on the money.” The Bush administration has to prove it’s safe to me— the more so since they usually argue we must accept all kinds of other crimes and moral failures in the name of national security.

*AAI: Arab American Institute. 500 UAE respondents surveyed 10/18/05–10/24/05; 21% favorable to US, 73% unfavorable; 44% say nepotism is chief cause of employment difficulties in the country. MOE +/- 10%.

NOTES: Greider, Limbaugh (actually “Seeing the Forest” cite of Limbaugh) links via “Hullabaloo.” Friedman excerpted by Atrios. Zogby/AAI lead via publius (“Legal Fiction”), who cites older 2004 data. Their discussions are worth reading, and I agree with much of each writer’s post.
UPDATE, 2/23: In Tapped, Yglesias disputes Friedman et al’s charges of racism against those questioning the port deal, for reasons similar to mine. And a Rasmussen poll shows only 17% of Americans approve of the Dubai Ports deal, while 63% disapprove. (1000 respondents, 2/22-23, MOE +/- 4%) (via Atrios).

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Good one, Jay

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd May 2003

Jay Leno, on the “Tonight Show”: “Saudi Arabia has just announced they’ve foiled a terrorist plot … apparently, they cancelled a check.”

Posted in Post | No Comments »


Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th April 2003

For the opinion pieces I mentioned yesterday, “worth reading” only means that I think the pieces are challenging and well written, not that I completely agree with them. The thesis that some of the writers are developing is that human rights repression and threat to the United States tend to go hand in hand. I’m open to the idea that a sufficiently totalitarian regime or movement is in and of itself a security threat: a government (or movement) that brooks no opposition and sets no limits on its ambitions is one that will eventually need to seek its victims elsewhere.

Nevertheless, my view about Iraq was fairly specific to the circumstances: there were supporting UN resolutions, the dictator involved had a history of aggression and non-deterrability, international cooperation in containing him was breaking down, and ending the atrocious repression in Iraq was a good to be weighed against the costs of the war.

I don’t support extending that war to any and all totalitarian regimes. The problem is agreeing whether a given regime is 1) “totalitarian” enough, and 2) threatening enough to the United States or our allies to warrant military action, with 3) low enough expected costs. To keep this short, I’ll set aside the need for international approval and how to go about gaining it, other than to say the greater the threat, the less the need for that approval.

My personal answers to the above three questions for various “next?” countries are currently: North Korea: yes, yes, no (Seoul). Syria: yes, no, yes. Iran: no, unsure, no. So far, I feel like what’s next is that we should try to get Iraq right, and not look around for another fight. That’s not to say I’m against exacting some pledges from these countries to mend their ways while the iron’s hot, so to speak.

Posted in Post | No Comments »


Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th November 2002

U.S. Strike Kills Six in Al Qaeda (Washington Post):

A missile fired by a U.S. Predator drone over Yemen Sunday killed six suspected al Qaeda terrorists in a vehicle about 100 miles east of the nation’s capital, the first time the United States has used the unmanned weapon outside Afghanistan, sources familiar with the action said yesterday.

A senior administration official said Yemeni defense officials had identified one of the men killed as Abu Ali al-Harithi, a senior al Qaeda leader and one of the terrorist network’s top figures in Yemen. Al-Harithi is one of the suspected planners of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, and has been linked to the Oct. 7 bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

There’s a great AP photo of some guy poking through the rubble. Great photos need great captions, leave yours as a comment if you like. “Asses to ashes”? The group was probably not on a coffee-and-doughnuts run. As ABC News reports:

Yemeni government sources have confirmed that traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car traveling in the oil-producing Marib province, about 100 miles east of the capital, San’a on Sunday.

…making me even less concerned about some Swedish foreign minister’s concerns (“summary execution”) than I already thought possible.

It’s a quibble, but we might have left this and the next two or three attacks “unexplained” for a while. On the other hand, this may slow down the operations these guys were planning, make their buddies rethink their travel plans, and allow more time to prevent terror attacks. In the meantime: are there any Predators flying over the “Empty Quarter“?

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »

Saudi “humanitarian” among Al Qaeda detainees?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th January 2002

At the end of an otherwise dispiriting article (“Al-Qaida PoWs revolt in Pakistan”), the Guardian reports:

Fifteen detainees from Mazar-i-Sharif have been turned over to the US Marines at a new jail at the American base at Kandahar. […]

One prisoner is believed to be Abdul Aziz, a Saudi Arabian official of the Wafa humanitarian organisation, a US official said. Wafa’s assets have been frozen by President George Bush’s administration for alleged terrorist links.

Getting at the money, and understanding how it flows, is as important as rounding up Al Qaeda, so Aziz’s capture, if it indeed happened, could be a big break.

Our good friends the Pakistanis

But the rest of the Guardian story above paints a picture of a pretty leaky bucket when Al Qaeda types get to Pakistan, or within reach of Pakistan forces. The incidents described by the Guardian appear to be due to incompetence by the Pakistanis, but I have to wonder. In a similar vein, Seymour Hersh alleges in the New Yorker (“The Getaway“) that Pakistani forces got a lot of their friends out with them as the Kunduz noose tightened in November.

In interviews, however, American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers said that Pakistanis were indeed flown to safety, in a series of nighttime airlifts that were approved by the Bush Administration. The Americans also said that what was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control, and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus. “Dirt got through the screen,” a senior intelligence official told me. Last week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did not respond to a request for comment. […]

Indian intelligence had concluded that eight thousand or more men were trapped inside the city in the last days of the siege, roughly half of whom were Pakistanis. (Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens, and various Arab mercenaries accounted for the rest.) At least five flights were specifically “confirmed” by India’s informants, the RAW analyst told me, and many more were believed to have taken place.

In the Indian assessment, thirtythree hundred prisoners surrendered to a Northern Alliance tribal faction headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A few hundred Taliban were also turned over to other tribal leaders. That left between four and five thousand men unaccounted for.

Hersh has published a number of “insider” stories about the true course of the war now, generally of the “it’s not going quite as well as they say it is” tenor; I don’t know what his batting average will turn out to be. But if this is even nearly true, we may have really blown it at Kunduz. Why could we not have insisted those flights head to Uzbekistan under US fighter escort? “Good guys” would have gotten a ticket to Islamabad (and some thorough debriefing and photographing for future reference), bad guys a ticket to “Club Fed” in the lovely Caribbean. What alternatives would they have had? (“No, I’ll stay in Kunduz rather than accept such humiliation.” “Fine.”) As for Musharraf, I would think in some ways he might be pleased to have corralled and controlled some of his nation’s own wild and woolly military types, under the guise of “debriefing” or whatever.

Although hindsight is always 20/20, I really don’t understand the U.S. reasoning here — again, assuming Hersh got the story more or less right. We need the Pakistanis… because? Because we want to catch Al Qaeda. Where were the Al Qaeda? …. In Kunduz. Leaving out those who wound up in Mazar-e-Sharif, we seem to have had hundreds, maybe thousands of birds in the hand, that we seem to have traded for nothing in the bush.

For some coverage at the time, see my posts of 11/24/2001, “B-52 that airport now“, and 11/21/2001, “72 virgins not enough, argue trapped Al Qaeda fighters” (to explain, that was an attempt to poke fun at would-be martyrs suddenly eager to escape). Obviously not so much for my deathless prose, but the news links still work.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Congress, Pentagon heed Layne, Johnson, doubt Saudis

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th January 2002

Slowly but surely, the “our good friends the Saudis” campaign (see Ken Layne and/or Charles Johnson on any given day) gathers steam. From the New York Times, “Dismay With Saudi Arabia Fuels Pullout Talk“:

A number of senior officials in Congress and the Pentagon are saying the United States should consider withdrawing military forces from Saudi Arabia because of frustration over what they consider the kingdom’s tepid support for the war on terrorism and the restrictions it places on American military operations.

Cons include all that time and money spent sprucing up Prince Sultan Air Force Base with high-tech command and control facilities. But as the Times quotes Senator Carl Levin (D-MI):

“…I think the war against terrorism has got to be fought by countries who really realize that it’s in everybody’s interest to go after terrorism. I think we may be able to find a place where we are much more welcome openly,” he said, “a place which has not seen significant resources flowing to support some really extreme, fanatic views.”

Levin is referring, of course, to Saudi support for the notorious madrassa schools instilling jihadism and Wahhabism — and nothing else — in Pakistan and elsewhere. Sentiment at the Pentagon is similarly unenthusiastic about the Saudis:

In the Pentagon, a growing number of commanders are frustrated with the Saudis’ refusal to allow American warplanes based at a sprawling airfield south of Riyadh to bomb Iraq and other Islamic countries, except in self-defense. “We’re pretty heavily invested in Saudi right now,” a senior military official said. “But if the opportunity arose to operate somewhere else in the region we’d be pretty interested.”

Other prominent Congressional Saudi critics identified by the article include Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), and to a lesser degree Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL). A credible alternative to the Prince Sultan airfield would probably do wonders for Saudi Arabia’s attitude on investigations in that country, and cooperation with anti-terror campaigns elsewhere.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

The Saudi Wahhabite role, contd.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st December 2001

Following up on earlier posts about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia: In the New York Times, the 12/27 article “Holy War Lured Saudis as Rulers Looked Away” provides an account of the role of Saudi secular and religious establishments in that country’s jihadist movement. Re religious establishment:

A half-blind man of 61, Sheik Sadlaan is a professor at the kingdom’s leading Islamic university and a religious adviser to a senior member of the royal family. What he says carries the weight of the ulemaa, Saudi Arabia’s official religious establishment, and what he says, carefully, is that the king is his imam, and the king does not currently advise young men to march off to holy war.

But asked about other scholars, like Sheik Hamoud al-Shuaibi, who since Sept. 11 and the American retaliation have openly called for jihad against the United States, Sheik Sadlaan stops short of condemnation.

“He made a mistake, but it was not a major one, and it does not detract from his reputation,” he said of Sheik Shuaibi, a former teacher.

Even the Saudi government is not known to have taken action against Sheik Shuaibi, despite his statements that those who support infidels, or unbelievers, should be considered unbelievers themselves, a statement that would seem perilously close to treason in Saudi Arabia, still home to more than 5,000 American troops.

Out of roughly 10,000 religious scholars in the kingdom, perhaps just 150 embrace such a radical view, according to American estimates. But among this group, only a handful is known to have been detained by Saudi authorities since Sept. 11…

This in a country known for crushing religious uprisings of whatever stripe, from the defeat of the Ikhwan in 1929 to the 1979 Mecca Mosque uprising to the 1992 Burayda roundups.* Mr. Sadlaan’s ambivalence may be changing in light of Crown Prince Abdullah’s call yesterday for unequivocal condemnation of terrorism (AP). Then again, it may not, given that “legitimate armed struggle” by the Palestinians was specifically distinguished from terrorism in Abdullah’s comments (Reuters). I don’t know whether Abdullah considers suicide bombing a pizza parlor or busloads of commuters “legitimate” or not.

Re government oversight, there is a lot of detail about the surveillance of Al Qaeda and “Afghan Arabs” by the Saudi government. But this is suggestive, I think:

But in private, Saudi and American officials say the real mystery to the Saudi government is not whether Saudi citizens took part [in the 9/11 attacks], but how so many of them were able to evade detection by the Saudi authorities. […]

To the Saudis, American officials say, the fact that the Saudis involved in the assaults were unknown to them was almost as startling as the attacks themselves.

In recent years, the mubahith, the Saudi equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, infiltrated Al Qaeda cells within the kingdom, while the monitoring of the Saudis fighting abroad was thought to have kept a handle on potential troublemakers.

Assume for a moment that the article is accurate in portraying the Saudi government as merely feckless or negligent in their handling of the “Afghan Arabs.” It seems to me we are still left with a portrait of (1) extremist clergy tolerated in a notably intolerant country — suggesting the government either fears them, believes they are sufficiently well observed, or both — and (2) gaping blind spots in the mubahith surveillance of Al Qaeda. As a theory, I suggest that some of these mubahith officials, and likely some of the domestic mutaween religious enforcement police may be treasonously extremist Wahhabites themselves, and may have helped the 9/11 attackers evade detection in Saudi Arabia. The CIA, FBI, and reliable muhabith should be (and may well be) looking for “sleeper” cells in the Saudi government, particularly in their police forces.


* Viorst, Shadow of the Prophet, Ch.7: “The Saudi Dilemma.”

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Saudi Arabia: background on Wahhabism and the House of Saud

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th December 2001

This post was prompted by an e-mail from Jim Henley, who is working out his own views on these subjects in his ever-interesting “Unqualified Offerings” blog, most recently today with Saudi dearies, and Almost but not quite. I agree with him on many points, including the basic one that I don’t think the House of Saud had a direct connection to the 9/11 attacks. Rather than being accomplices to those attacks, I think they may have been and may continue to be criminally negligent: they are “merely” not inclined to work very hard to stop terrorists operating from their soil, as opposed to being terrorist lackeys like the Taliban were.

Saudi Arabia possesses two strategic assets: the cheapest-to-extract large oil reserves on the planet — and Mecca. The one makes it too important to the West to lose, the other makes it likely too dangerous for the West to take. I think the House of Saud is a family that has entered into two symbioses to preserve its status as the controllers of these two assets.

The Mecca symbiosis came first. (The following is cribbed liberally from Milton Viorst’s book In The Shadow of the Prophet, which I’ve mentioned before; see the chapter “The Saudi Dilemma”). In 1744 one Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (b. 1703) got together with an ambitious chief named Muhammad ibn Saud, living in the village of Diriyah — now on the outskirts of the similarly named Riyadh — to make a deal: Saud would provide the military muscle, Wahhab the “unitarian” ideology. That essentially totalitarian ideology proclaimed that any rethinking of Islam was heresy (bid’a: innovation), and that only Wahhab’s way — a return to (his version of) the era of the rashidun, i.e., Mohammed and his immediate successors — would do. Viorst writes:

In theory, the Saudi Monarchy is the executive, the Wahhabi “ulama”[clergy] the moral guide. In practice, the relationship is more complex. The two institutions, while allies, are often rivals, each tugging constantly at the other … The clerics prefer to call the head of the House of Saud “Imam”, to convey the holy source of his power; the Saudi monarch, having adopted the title Cusotodian of the Two Holy Mosques to assert his piety, lieks being called “King,” though in Arabic the title has a foreign ring that clerics scorn. Yet, while each hierarchy tries for a leg up on the other, the acknowledge their mutual dependence. Whatever the Saudi dissidents’ current demands for reform, history suggests that the regime has survived this long precisely because it has never, in its basic structure, given serious thought to reform at all.

The second symbiosis, with the United States, was caused by Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s attack on Kuwait resulted in the House of Saud’s epiphany that they needed permanent protection from their more populous, industrial neighbor. In the long run, this second symbiosis is incompatible with the first one: infidel U.S. bases on Saudi soil are hard for Wahhabites to square with their old-time religion view of Islam’s holy land. Many Saudis both inside and outside the House of Saud feel they made a Faustian bargain with the United States to protect themselves from Iraq; these critics more or less share Bin Laden’s distaste and even revulsion for Westerners in their holy land, but most probably believe it was the only realistic way to be sure of protection from Iraq. Viorst writes:

To many Saudis, basing infidels on the holy soil was not just a religious but a political lapse, defaulting on the compact by which the Saud family rules. [Said one university professor,] “…we all knew that soldiers from other countries were defending us because we were unable to defend ourselves… The West seems to think that the impact of the war was cultural, that we were upset by women in T-shirts driving jeeps. There’s some truth to that… but the more fundamental truth is that we felt the royal family had let us down.”[…]

“The King, deep down, is less rigid than the clergy,” an editor of an Islamic paper said to me. “By Saudi standards, he is probably very enlightened. But the people are Wahhabi, and I’m not sure how much social change the people want.”

I introduce all of this background mainly to point out that there is a built-in opposition to the House of Saud — the Wahhabite clergy — which may have more credibility with Saudis and more freedom of action than many of us were aware. I think it’s conceivable and plausible that the Saudi religious police who smuggled Al Harbi into Afghanistan did so on their own, in opposition to the House of Saud, U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, and the United States.


A note to readers: I posted an even longer version of this last night, then had second thoughts a minute later. So I deleted it — but forgot to hit “publish”, meaning it stayed on the web for some 24 hours. While I could restore it to this blog, I like the revised piece better: it has more information, less speculation on my part, and meanders a bit less. I think the point (see last sentence) is pretty much the same; much of the first half or so is exactly the same. I’ll save the old version to this web page, in case anyone has cited anything from it or cares for some other reason. PS: I see now that Jim Henley did, making me wish I hadn’t gone down this path at all. Sorry for the inconvenience, everyone.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »