Saudi Arabia

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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Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

As with other religions, Islam embodies the concept of like-minded believers sharing a global destiny no matter which nation they live in.

In Arabic, this idea is known as the Ummah. Militant Islamists invoke it repeatedly to convince Muslims they are obligated to aid Muslims persecuted by non-Muslims.

How does this work in practice? As with Christians (the extensive history of Christian nations fighting other Christian nations is hardly unknown), the idealized notion that co-religionists can count on fellow believers in stressful times is highly limited.

Witness the lack of global Muslim efforts to assist their Chinese Uighur co-religionists currently being brutalized by the Chinese government. Or the relative dearth of Uighur-related news coverage emanating from Muslim-majority nations.

Western media, on the other hand, have covered the Uighur story like a blanket — despite the geographic, logistical and political hurdles making it difficult to do so. Here at GetReligion, we’ve posted repeatedly on the Uighur situation the past few years.

One Western publication I think has done an excellent job with the story is Foreign Policy. The magazine has published, online, two strong pieces on the Uighurs in just the past couple of weeks.

Here’s one from late October that tells how China is planting strangers who absurdly identify themselves as “relatives” in Uighur homes to monitor them. Here’s the second, published last week, detailing that Uighurs are so desperate to escape Chinese persecution that some are actually fleeing to Afghanistan for safety.

Consider that for a moment. True, Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. But it’s also a land of continual warfare where even the innocent can become collateral damage at any time. So fleeing to Afghanistan hardly ensures peaceful sanctuary. And yet they do.

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Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

If you have spent much time studying human rights, you know that there wherever you find attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, you almost always find attacks on the freedom of religion.

You just cannot pry these issues apart, in real life.

Long ago — 1983, to be precise — Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu put it this way, during floor debates in Vancouver, Canada, about evangelism and free speech at a global assembly of the World Council of Churches. When describing apartheid government crackdowns on street preachers, he said words to this effect: One man’s evangelist preaching on a street corner is another man’s political activist.

With that in mind, I don’t think that there is any question about the link readers need to click, seeking this week’s think piece. Im talking about the final Washington Post column from the late (that certainly appears to be the case) Jamal Khashoggi. The headline:

What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”

I realize that lots of different people are saying lots of different things about this man’s life, career and political associations — past and present. I know about his role, at one time, in the Muslim Brotherhood.

This piece is still must reading. Here is how it starts:

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed.

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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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In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

While the media hail 2018’s historic total of female and LGBTQ political candidates, religion writers should be covering the unprecedented 90 or more Muslims, virtually all Democrats, running for national, state, or local office. That’s the count from the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center, founded in 2015 to promote Muslim candidacies. 

President Donald Trump’s words and deeds toward Muslims doubtless energize this electoral activism. Not to mention Virginia’s faltering Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, who smeared Michigan governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed as an “ISIS commie.” 

Pioneering Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and very likely Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are guaranteed media stardom, in line to be  the first Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Tlaib, who succeeds disgraced Congressman John Conyers, just edged Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in a six-candidate Democratic primary scramble. She’ll run unopposed in November for the 13thdistrict seat.  The oldest of  Palestianian immigrants’ 14 children and a mother of two, Tlaib earned a law degree through weekend classes and was elected to the Michigan House, reportedly only the second U.S. Muslim woman to be  a state legislator.

Two other Muslim hopefuls fell short in Michigan. El-Sayed, director of Detroit’s health department, lost the governor nomination to former state Senator Gretchen Whitmer. In U.S. House district 11, Fayrouz  Saad, who directs Detroit’s immigrant affairs office, took only fourth place.    

The first Muslim in the U.S. House, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is the most politically powerful U.S. Muslim to date, nearly winning the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and is currently its deputy chairman.

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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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Male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia: A web of Wahhabi-style Islam and culture

Male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia: A web of Wahhabi-style Islam and culture

The Guardian, a British newspaper, thankfully can still be read without a paywall, which is how I saw a recent piece on how Saudi women have taken to battling the country’s male guardianship system via Twitter.

Twitter, as you may remember, has become an extremely powerful social network in Saudi society, as its users can remain anonymous and push for social changes like women finally being allowed to drive. I wrote about that here.

In explaining the Twitter phenomenon, the Guardian leaves one thing untold; the origins of the country’s oppressive laws concerning the inability of women to do anything without a male accompanying her.

Turns out the reasons, in reality, have nothing to do with a clear teaching of Islam. But first we start here:

Women in Saudi Arabia are riding a “Twitter wave” of activism that they hope will lead to the abolition of a legal guardianship system that gives men authority over their lives.
There has been an “explosion of advocacy” on Twitter over the past two years, say the authors of a report – the first of its kind produced by Saudi women – documenting how women in the kingdom have been fighting for their rights since 1990.
The move to social media has been spearheaded by younger women who, emboldened by the Arab spring and the crown prince’s vision for the country, have embraced the medium as an increasingly important tool for change.

Some 40 percent of 6.3 million Saudi Twitter users are women, the piece says. Before social media, it was difficult to know what was happening in the country other than the official line. That changed as the populace embraced one of the highest per capita Twitter rates in the world. Then:

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