By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam
09 November 2017
In his thought-provoking new piece on The Atlantic website, academic Mustafa Akyol argues that Islam does not need its own version of the Christian reformation that arose from mass abuses of power by the Catholic clergy. Instead, he contends, Islam needs an era of enlightenment driven by philosopher saints like John Locke to push the faith past its dogmatic divisions and sectarian strife.
Akyol’s warrant to back this claim is simple: Islam unlike Roman Catholicism has no spiritual head that has the final word on religious doctrine. My key takeaway was his hypothesis that “enlightened despots” in the mould of Europe’s own between the 15th and 17th centuries could catalyze Islam’s age of enlightenment. And in Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman, we may have a contender.
Saudi Arabia, it is hard to dispute, figures mightily in any explanation of sustained violence in the Middle East and the spread of militant jihad worldwide. For decades, the kingdom has sunk billions of petrodollars into exporting a parochial interpretation of Islamic canon called Salafism that inspired both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The Saudis originally did so to pacify the hard-line Wahhabis that had helped them conquer Arabia and later as a knee-jerk reaction to revolutionary Iran. Soon enough, Uncle Sam hijacked this project to serve geostrategic ends in the Cold War. Either way, the House of Saud had never before publicly criticized the Wahhabis or Washington. That is until bin Salman appeared and wrested the claim to the throne from his elder relative Muhammad bin Nayef, reportedly in Machiavellian fashion.
Drawing parallels between U.S. President Trump and bin Salman is important for they represent a controversial yet oft-proven theory popularized in the 19th century by historian Thomas Carlyle among others. The “Great Man Theory” forwards the thesis that men with the capacity to change history are born, not bred. Moreover, that they appear when they are most needed.
Now, it’s open season on Trump from all quarters but that does not void the fact that he saw a niche and filled it. Vast numbers of blue-collar white Americans were hurting from the literal rusting of the “Rust Belt,” and blamed former president Barack Obama for throwing his weight behind social justice at the expense of reviving the country’s industrial heartland. And as Michael Moore predicted, this cohort took its revenge on Election Day by elevating a political novice to power.
Yet both the U.S. and the broader world need Trump. They need a leader of the free world who is not trigger-happy and puts “America First.” In short, a period of scaled-back militarism where Washington shelves nation-building abroad, as Trump promised in his recent Af-Pak policy speech. And for all his public saber rattling toward North Korea, reports suggest Trump has approved diplomatic back channels to dial back the threat of war. His macho posturing for the benefit of media optics may continue, but he is not foolish enough to trigger nuclear Armageddon in the Korean peninsula.
Activist American presidents who are unafraid to speak their minds and challenge conventional political wisdom are not entirely uncommon, but a Saudi crown prince with hitherto-unseen sweeping powers who acts similarly is. Indeed, jaws dropped across the Islamic world in March this year when bin Salman praised Trump as a “true friend of Muslims,” barely a few months after the White House had rolled out an immigration ban that openly targeted Muslims.
Yet Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip and once there reportedly participated in a debate about how to promote moderate Islam. His greatest foreign policy accomplishment may be persuading the future Saudi king to begin dismantling the kingdom’s Salafist sponsorship network unilaterally, in return for renewed security pledges against Iran that had clocked out during Obama’s second-term.
Some may interject at this point and say Ayatollah Iran is equally responsible for the bloodletting in the Middle East and beyond. While it is true that Iran patronizes Shia militias across the region, the ends are geostrategic in nature and largely anti-US or Israel. Of the most pernicious, post-2001 menaces to the Islamic World, neither the Islamic State nor Al Qaeda nor the Taliban are Iranian proxies or Shia. The proverbial Mecca of the pan-Islamist project is Riyadh.
Bin Salman stunned the world again in late October by promising to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam.” “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” he rued, and that previous rulers “didn’t know how to deal with it [1979 Iranian Revolution]. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.” This may be the first candid admission by any senior Saudi royal of the kingdom’s outsized role in spreading Salafist Jihadism.
He, of course, refers to the events of 1979, when zealots stormed the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and laid siege to the complex armed with enough ammo to last them weeks. When police refused to fire at the holy mosque, details Yaroslav Trofimov in his book "The Siege of Mecca", the panicked Saudis ran to their clerics to secure a fatwa sanctioning a special ops mission. The clerics agreed, subject to a few conditions, salient among which was “government funding be appropriated towards cleric-missionaries throughout the Islamic world.”
This compromise, believes Trofimov, “created an infrastructure which allowed Al-Qaeda militants to breed throughout the Arab world." And the rest of the lunatics followed, starting with the Taliban who Washington and Riyadh nurtured with Pakistan’s considerable help to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan. This policy backfired spectacularly two decades later when the U.S and particularly Pakistan lost enormous blood and treasure in trying to muzzle the mad dog they had set loose on Russia.
Bin Salman is by no means naïve. With the oil market expected to remain bearish, he knows ruin awaits the royals over the next decade if they unable to create sustainable employment opportunities for the roughly five million young Saudis primed to enter the job market. Economic pressures from unemployment could create the kind of social toxicity that leads to revolution.
The crown prince will definitely encounter stiff resistance from clerics. And his sprawling socioeconomic reforms that threaten to shakeup the status quo will likely earn him more enemies inside the royal palace, some of whom he is proactively purging using the cover of an anti-corruption crackdown. But Trump and bin Salman between them have the capacity to banish global Jihadism for good. It is henceforth a simple matter of will and judicious coercion.
S. Mubashir Noor is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist