By Yasser Latif Hamdani
February 23, 2015
The state may no longer recognise them as Muslims but both Sir Zafrullah Khan and Dr Abdus Salam, the two great gifts for Pakistan from the persecuted Ahmedi community, claimed to seek inspiration from the Holy Quran. Zafrullah Khan’s contributions to the human rights framework of the UN as Pakistan’s foreign minister are well known. As a jurist he attained high honour by being elevated to the president of the international court. Dr Abdus Salam’s contribution to theoretical physics got him the Nobel Prize for Physics, the only one for a Pakistani and the first one in the Muslim world. Both men attributed their successes — and phenomenal successes these were — to the inspiration they drew from the Holy Quran. This was consistent with the Islamic modernist interpretations of Islam that have sought to reconcile modernity and science with religion.
Not everyone draws the same inspiration though and certainly not the Saudis. There is an ever-growing section amongst the orthodox in the Muslim world who believe that it is the sun that goes around the earth and not the other way around. They reject the idea that it is rotation of the earth around its axis that is responsible for night and day on the basis of spurious logic that disregards gravity. Here is the troubling part: Saudi Arabia has been exporting its literalist retrogressive interpretation of Islam to all parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan. One manifestation of this is said to be the International Islamic University, a university that is said to be under direct Saudi control, the horror stories about which we are learning from ex-students and graduates.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving cars and it does so because its officially imposed interpretation of Islam prohibits it. The Saudi Arabian interpretation of Islam is a straitjacket from which there is no escape. However, Saudi Arabia is not Afghanistan or Sudan. It is — thanks to oil — outwardly an extremely developed country where the highways, airports and shopping malls can hold their own against any developed western country in the world. A much more important statistic is the high level of female literacy in the country. So why does Saudi Arabia cling to its rigid interpretations of Islam that are so contrary to human reason and modernity, despite being ostensibly a modern capitalist society? Or is it an unholy matrimony of capitalism and tribalism — capitalist tribalism if you please?
Remember, Saudi Arabia is not a nation state by any stretch of the imagination. There is no national narrative or a story that informs its past as Saudi Arabia, whether linguistic, racial or religious. The reason why the country is called Saudi Arabia is because the House of Saud rules it. The divine justification for this dynasty to sit atop one fifth of the world’s oil is gained from the broad consensus of the shaikhs or religious leaders. The objectives of the Wahhabi-Salafi movement in Islam are not limited to this country or that country but the entire Muslim world and beyond. This means basically that as much as the Saudi royal family might be opposed to Islamic State (IS), the truth is that Saudi Arabia has more in common with IS than what differentiates them.
A lot is said about the reformation of the Muslim world but the key to that is the reformation of the House of Saud. Since the objective of the House of Saud is perpetuation of its rule, it will continue its symbiotic relationship with the orthodox religious clergy of the Kingdom. After all, the alternative would be too much to ask for: the creation of a constitutional monarchy that is answerable to the people through a legislature. Perish the thought. It would also upset the delicate global economic balance. Without absolute rule of the dynasty, Saudi Arabia would cease to be Saudi Arabia. Basically, it is a vicious cycle. The House of Saud will not relinquish its absolute rule as long as there is oil and, as long there is oil, the powers that be — the US and the European Union — will not object to its rule. Oil rich kingdoms are far too important to be trusted with the people.
As for Pakistan, we became a Saudi colony soon after 1971, when we lost touch with South East Asia geographically. Pakistani rulers found it expedient to hang on to the coattails of the long flowing Arab robes. The formalisation of this Faustian bargain happened through the 1974 Islamic Summit Conference, which was the turning point in Pakistan’s self-identification and it was presided over by the one man, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who should have known better. Now Saudi princes come and flout our laws with impunity, hunting endangered species at will. Saudi diplomats boast in Washington that they are not mere spectators in Pakistan’s politics but active participants. And to think that in 1930, at the famous Khutba-e-Allahabad, Allama Iqbal had presented the idea of a Muslim state in North West India to liberate Islam from the “stamp of Arab imperialism”. The stamp of Arab imperialism is all the more prominent now. Indeed, the entire subcontinent is Saudi Arabia’s favourite hunting ground. Young Indian Muslim women are said to be bought by the shaikhs for their harems. For this patronage, even the Muslim-hating Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, pays glowing tributes to the Saudi monarch. The Republic of India declared an official day of mourning for the late King Abdullah. Militant secularists of the Awami League in Bangladesh do not lag far behind. Such is the power of money and oil for nations that have neither.
Thus, in my opinion, the sooner the world sees the back of the Saudi royal family and their court-appointed jesters i.e. the shaikhs, riding roughshod over religion, the better. Yet, tragically, for all our futures, the chances of that happening are very remote.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality.