The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia: Further Thoughts

The Islamic State movement is a crude caricature of what its leaders think an Islamic state was and should be. Its latest violent spectacular – throwing Christians out of Mosul – is as contrary to the general tenor of inter-faith relations in the classical period of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, as destroying non-orthodox Sunni places of worship. Those Islamic states made huge use of their large Christian populations, for one as translators of Greek thought and medicine. Periods of enforced orthodoxy were rare – the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun’s “inquisition” (al-mihna) of the religious scholars to oblige their adoption of Mutazila school’s theory of the Quran is the most obvious. In earlier periods there is even evidence that the Islamic states did not favour conversion of the largely Christian and Zoroastrian populations they had conquered, because the religion was for a period conceived of as an Arab patrimony and because the state wanted its jizya tax from non-Muslims. If we look at enforced covering of women and mass head-chopping there is similarly no indication of it as a defining feature of the caliphate.
What are IS’s influences then? It’s clear that Wahhabism is most obvious source of inspiration – the idea of jihad, the obsession with Shi’ism as a deformed Islam, covering women and what Aziz Al-Azmeh calls the “spectacular performances” of public execution are all Saudi phenomena. The Saudi regime, keenly aware since 2001 of how the outside world perceives its state orthodoxy, has tried to blame the Muslim Brotherhood (and the wider movement of political Islam) for Islamic political violence, and most recently it succeeded to some degree in convincing the British government of taking its claims seriously, with the launch of a government inquiry into the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s influence is there but only in a very general sense in that political Islam is a very political movement with ambitions to run modern states and their foreign policies. To the degree to which Wahhabism goes beyond traditional subordination to the ruling dynasty Al Saud can blame the Brotherhood. It is not that Wahhabism does not also wish to expand beyond its borders: a fundamental requirement of the modern Saudi state was neutralizing Wahhabism’s extra-territorial ambitions, but every now and then it broke the control mechanisms, most notably in 1979 during the Mecca mosque siege. What we had with al-Qa’ida was a Wahhabi project geographically displaced to Afghanistan where it could fully engage its fantasies.
Al-Qa’ida was also to some degree influenced by leftist anti-colonial thought, as the Khomeini revolution in Iran was, from which it could form its central idea of the West as a predatory, oppressive force against the Third World/Muslims/Arabs/The South. What is interesting with IS is that this last element is less present, seemingly replaced by hatred of Shi’ism and Iran: it has little to say about Jerusalem, Gaza, the United States, or Mecca. IS is not, then, a carbon copy of Saudi Wahhabism – it has not prevented women driving, for a start – but as a Saudi friend put it the other day, “if IS came to Saudi Arabia we wouldn’t know the difference, we already implement what they do”. In both cases we are dealing with imagined reconstructions of an Islamic past according to the needs of today’s circumstances (maintaining a Saudi family dynasty in the peninsula, fighting Shi’ite hegemony in Iraq). Neither reflect very much at all the nature of Islam as a religion or of its early history.

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