Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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It's not just DC and the Vatican: Saudi Arabia and Indonesia make worrisome news

It's not just DC and the Vatican: Saudi Arabia and Indonesia make worrisome news

It's time for an update on the inseparably braided political and religious goings-on in two key Muslim nations; Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, and Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace and site of the recently concluded hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

As you may expect, it’s not good news.

Moreover, it’s news that’s in danger of going under-appreciated because of the undeniably more alluring headlines -- for American news junkies, at least -- related to the Catholic Church’s sexual corruption cover up, and the Trump administration’s equally crumbling cover up of sexual, financial and all-around political corruption.

Let’s start with Indonesia, which once enjoyed, and capitalized on, a reputation for being one of the most politically moderate and religiously open-minded of Muslim nations.

These two pieces provide a refresher, should you require it. The first is a news report from Reuterswhile the second is a previous GetReligion analysis by editor Terry Mattingly ("That wave of attacks on churches in Indonesia: Is the 'moderate' Muslim news hook gone?"

Now, it seems, the situation in the Southeast Asian archipelago nation has gone from bad to worse, and perhaps to the absurd.

Here’s what The Washington Post reported last week.

A Buddhist woman’s conviction this week on blasphemy charges has alarmed many in Indonesia who were already worried about the erosion of religious pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.


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A 'yeah, right!' story? Try Macron wanting French Muslims to change their faith, on his terms

A 'yeah, right!' story? Try Macron wanting French Muslims to change their faith, on his terms

When was the last time you read a story quoting some political figure’s simplistic solution to a complex situation that struck you as so absurd that your reaction was a bewildered, and sarcastic, “Yeah, right! That’ll work.”

For me -- ignoring, for now, my many head-slapping reactions to the ludicrous ideas emanating from Washington these days -- it was when I read this Washington Post piece detailing French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to reshape Islam in his nation as an antidote to the faith’s jihadist fringe.

Yeah, right! That’ll work. Does anyone in Macron's inner circle study history?

[Macron] has said that in the coming months he will announce “a blueprint for the whole organization” of Islam. And those trying to anticipate what that will look like are turning their attention to Hakim El Karoui, a leading voice on how Islamic traditions fit within French culture.

It is hard to miss that the man who appears to have Macron’s ear on this most sensitive of subjects cuts a similar figure. Like the president, El Karoui is an ex-Rothschild investment banker with an elite social pedigree who favors well-tailored suits, crisp white shirts and the lofty province of big ideas.

The latest of those ideas is this -- that the best way to integrate Islam within French society is to promote a version of the religion “practiced in peace by believers who will not have the need to loudly proclaim their faith.”

But if El Karoui is the model for how Macron envisions merging Islamic traditions and French values, the effort may end up stumbling along a rough road.

“He’s disconnected from everyday Muslims, and he has legitimacy on the question only because he happens to be named Hakim El Karoui, and that’s it,” said Yasser Louati, a French civil liberties advocate and Muslim community organizer.

Reorganize? Like reconfiguring the whole wine drinking thing to help French Muslims loosen up, perhaps?

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U.S. press bestows blessing on 'frenemy' Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, perhaps prematurely

U.S. press bestows blessing on 'frenemy' Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, perhaps prematurely

Following a weekend in New York -- where I made sure to down a couple of the Big Apple’s unofficial, official drink, the egg cream (I prefer vanilla) -- I returned to my current home in Maryland, where I proceeded to go through my waiting mail.

There he was -- again. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), his face gracing the cover of the latest issue of Time.

But of course. Media speaking, it’s his moment in the spotlight. Heir to the throne of his critically important Arab nation, American news media offered up near blanket coverage of his now completed three-week visit here.

The question is, how to portray him?

As a modernizer out to update the public face of traditionally uncompromising, Saudi-style Wahhabi Sunni Islam by, among other things, allowing women to drive cars and speaking about allowing public movie theaters to open (amazing, but that’s what passes for reform in socially constricted Saudi Arabia, even in 2018)?

As a two-faced but media-savvy, all-powerful monarch in-waiting who imprisons his domestic foes and financially shakes them down, while simultaneously trying to divert attention from his nation’s horrible human rights record so as to gain strong Western support for Saudi Arabia in its building conflict with Iran, with which it fights a devastating proxy way in Yemen?

My view?

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One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

Looking at Muslim culture in the Mideast apart from ongoing terrorism problems, The Economist’s fat “The World in 2018” special includes two articles that anticipate secularization and decline for religious hardliners in Sunni lands. You can click here to read, "Roll Over Religion."

The key factor is a “disenchanted” younger generation that no longer accepts claims that “Islam is the solution” to socio-economic woe.  Such unrest is obvious, but The Religion Guy is hesitant about claims of sweeping decline. Nonetheless, U.S.-based reporters should pay heed, since correspondents Roger McShane and Nicolas Pelham are on the ground and we’re not.

“Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates will seek to capitalize on popular sentiment to pursue their Islamist foes,” the venerable Brit newsmagazine predicts. Regimes will talk about “reform and modernization” but in actuality will maneuver “to clip the powers of religious institutions and increase their own sway.” As part of it they’ll “roll back the presence of religion in public spaces.”

Already, with the ISIS collapse, women in Mosul, Iraq, are removing their full-face coverings and returning to school and college classrooms. Tunisia is letting Muslim women marry Christians. In Egypt, symbolic beards and veils are starting to disappear as weekly mosque attendance slides. “In some cities sex before marriage is becoming a norm,” and we should “expect more videos of Saudi women in risqué dress.”

Much of the intrigue centers on straitlaced Saudi Arabia and its busy young Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS, lately in the news for paying a record $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ). All but taking command from his father King Salman, the prince has begun circumscribing powers of the dreaded mutaween (religious police).

As the regime “chips away at restrictions imposed under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code,” the “conservative clerics are perturbed,” the magazine says. A permanent shift in religion policy would have major impact because the Saudis have funded Salafi and Wahhabi zealotry worldwide.

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