By Ali Khan
31st Jan 2015
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stand with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman after arriving at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on Tuesday. Obama stopped over in Saudi Arabia to pay his condolences over the death of King Abdulllah
Michelle Obama has been much lauded in the media for not covering her head in front of the Saudi King. And why not? After all, her husband's last speech in India, just before foregoing a trip to the Taj Mahal in order to condole with the new old-king of the desert kingdom, was all about strength in diversity and religious harmony. Indeed, the theme of India's Republic Day celebrations was women's empowerment. Subsequently, allegations of Michelle Obama's face being blurred on Saudi TV were quickly rebutted, although the region seems to revel in scrubbing women out of photos. An Israeli news service has time and again been censured for photo-shopping out women from pictures it published. What is particularly interesting is that a quick visit to Sheikh Google using "Obama Saudi", throws up dozens of articles on Michelle Obama's bravery — the New York Times calls it her "bold stand" — in refusing to wear a scarf in a room full of men who, as it happens, all had their heads covered. Indeed, the preponderance of coverage of the visit seems to have been about how Michelle has single-handedly made a point about the lack of gender-equality in Saudi Arabia. Not much else seems to have happened. In the meanwhile, the other story that has been circulating in the press is about how Queen Elizabeth decided to drive a shocked King Abdullah around the vast grounds of Balmoral. It is unclear whether the Queen was wearing, as she is often wont to do outdoors, a scarf or a Hijab. In actual fact, when she was visiting the Emirates, she donned a hat that was suspiciously like a fez, and then wrapped it in a shawl which made her look, from a distance, like a Jedi knight. Ask Sheikh Google about "Queen Hijab", if you don't believe me.
Although the Saudi state has exceedingly strict laws governing the interaction of unrelated men and women, these interpretations are themselves relatively modern. Whereas women are not allowed to drive, let alone travel without a male companion, I wonder what some Saudis would have made of the Prophet's wife and one time employer, Khadijah. Or of the 2nd Caliph Omar's decision to appoint a woman, Shifa bint Abdullah bin Abdus Shams, as inspector of the markets in Medina. Rufaidah al-Aslamiyya was a surgeon with a tent full of equipment and she tended to wounded soldiers after battles, presumably having physical contact with them in order to treat them. In 859 AD, Fatima al-Fihri founded a religious school in Fes, Jamiat ul Qarawiyeen, which in 1963 officially became a university.
In 10th century in Aleppo, Mariam al-Astrulabiyyah, a scientist and inventor, who was also a prolific astrolabe maker, would have positively sent some Saudis into a tizzy. One can just imagine them debating about whether the direction of prayer ascertained through one of her astrolabes would make the prayer invalid or not. Anyway, the examples of queens, scholars, writers and poets are countless, but I digress.
Of course all this history is irrelevant, or at best sounds "nice" in a book, because today women in Saudi Arabia are corseted by strict laws. The point is that Michelle Obama's decision not to conform, unlike the Queen, is essentially a meaningless gesture. One cannot really imagine an aide from the royal court, let alone an octogenarian prince, whispering into the ear of the wife the American President — yes, he who sanctions military aid and protection to many countries in the Arabian Peninsula — that she might perhaps consider covering her hair. If she had been visiting just as another private individual, she would have been quickly brought to heel by a Mutawwa or member of the ubiquitous religious police for her behaviour and would in all likelihood also have been detained.
For many decades the US has turned a blind eye to some of the most egregious violations of human dignity in Saudi Arabia, while saying to the world that there are more pressing concerns. In an interview given to Fareed Zakaria, Obama reiterated this position by saying that "sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability". It is precisely this kind of doublespeak, often justified by the twin logic of security and stability that leads to the Americans becoming deeply unpopular in many parts of the world. In the same interview, when asked if he would bring up the issue of the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, Obama avoided answering the question. However, until these issues are tackled head on, one can only expect certain sections of Saudi society to continue exporting their intolerant brand of religion. There is no doubt that there are layers, factions and exceptions in Saudi Arabia much like any other country. Within the royal family there are sub-groups, with the Sudairi circle perhaps being the most powerful. There are also those princes that do not espouse Wahhabism. Then there are the Aal ash-Sheikh or the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the ideological progenitor of Wahhabism, who are extremely powerful in religious circles; and there are Salafis and other small yet powerful groups. However, despite the need to balance the interests of various groups within the kingdom, the fact is that an intolerant interpretation of Islam is more common than not.
Today people are shocked by the manner in which the ISIS are administering their territories, but nearly all of their brutal methods find precedent in Saudi Arabia. Whipping, the amputations of hands and feet, beheadings and stoning are common, with perhaps an exception being that ISIS chooses to crucify people for banditry (which results in murder) and often also for being from a minority: be it a "heretical" Muslim sect or someone from a non-Muslim community. In order to see the kind of people who endorse this kind of behaviour, all you have to do is tune into one of the many satellite channels that beam videos of various clerics from Riyadh and Jeddah.
One of the most vicious examples of this is a Syrian cleric based out of Saudi called Adnan Al-'Arour, who at one point called for Alawites in Syria to be put in a meat grinder. It is important for the US and indeed the many European countries that have close ties to Saudi Arabia to address these issues now. Muslims are time and again asked to reform and change but surely an equally pressing concern and indeed a responsibility of those who make such demands is not protecting one of the root causes of many of the problems. When the oil runs out, there will be only one thing left to export, and we all know the effect that has had on the world. After all, let us not forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked the US on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.