Sunni Islam

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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A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

I'm no expert on Christians in the Middle East, but this strikes me as a powerful, important read.

It's an in-depth report from the Wall Street Journal on the "epochal shift" of Christians from the Middle East.

TANTA, Egypt — Like the Jews before them, Christians are fleeing the Middle East, emptying what was once one of the world’s most-diverse regions of its ancient religions.
They’re being driven away not only by Islamic State, but by governments the U.S. counts as allies in the fight against extremism.
When suicide bomb attacks ripped through two separate Palm Sunday services in Egypt last month, parishioners responded with rage at Islamic State, which claimed the blasts, and at Egyptian state security.
Government forces assigned to the Mar Girgis church in Tanta, north of Cairo, neglected to fix a faulty metal detector at the entrance after church guards found a bomb on the grounds just a week before. The double bombing killed at least 45 people, and came despite promises from the Egyptian government to protect its Christian minority.

This story is packed with hard data and gripping detail such as this:

In northern Iraq, blue and white charter buses crisscross neighborhoods of recently liberated Mosul, returning Muslim families displaced by Islamic State. They drive through Christian areas without stopping. For the first time in nearly two millennia, Iraq’s second-largest city, once a melting pot of ancient religions, lacks a Christian population to speak of.
The Al-Aswad family, a clan of masons who built the city’s houses, churches and mosques and trace their lineage back to the 19th century, vow never to return. They’ve opted to live in the rat-infested refugee camps of Erbil in northern Iraq, where they await updates on their asylum application to Australia.
A Christian charity has given them a small apartment until June, at which point they will have to return to the refugee camps to live in a converted cargo shipping container.
“We call it the cemetery,” said Raghd Al-Aswad, describing how the cargo containers are covered with dark blue tarps to protect against the rain. “It looks like dead bodies stacked side by side with a giant hospital sheet on top of them.”

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New York Times explains Saudi Wahhabism in depth (What's Uber got to do with it?)

New York Times explains Saudi Wahhabism in depth (What's Uber got to do with it?)

The New York Times has published another in its "Secrets of the Kingdom" series on Saudi Arabia, this time delving into the Saudi monarchy's complicated political/religious pact with Wahhabi Islam.

The ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam has had quite a widespread impact on global Islam, and by extension, the non-Muslim world -- as I've noted here before.

This installment of the intermittent series -- which I've touted previously -- offers up no real secrets to those who pay serious attention to the Middle East. Still, the piece and the series in general -- a package of in-depth backgrounders picking apart different aspects of Saudi domestic policy and external influences -- strikes me as akin to a public service.

It's a highly readable primer for the uninitiated, and a detailed reminder for those of us who think we know something about the Saudi leadership's duplicitous ways. While not written by religion journalists, the series provides material every religion journalist should know.

Just how pervasive has the Saudi influence been? Here's a block from the new Times piece addressing this:

Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said.
The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.

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The preaching of Zakir Naik: When journalists turn the term 'evangelist' into an insult

The preaching of Zakir Naik: When journalists turn the term 'evangelist' into an insult

Let's walk through this one slowly, since it's a bit complicated. The big question here: Is there such a thing as a Muslim evangelist?

The bottom line: The word "evangelist" has deep roots in Christian tradition -- period. If you dig deep enough into the early church you find the Greek word "euangelion," which means "good news" or the Gospel, and that evolved into the Latin "evangelium."

Click your mouse a few times and you can find the word "evangel," which means, "The Christian Gospel" or "any of the four Gospels of the New Testament." Once again, the Greek and Latin roots are clear. "Evangel" evolved into "evangelist." If you look that up you find a variety of definitions, the most generic of which will be something like, "One who promulgates or promotes something enthusiastically." The main choices will resemble:

* Protestant minister or layperson who serves as an itinerant or special preacher, especially a revivalist.
* A preacher of the Gospel.
* Any of the writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the four Gospels.
* A person who first brought the gospel to a city or region.

During the evangelical and Pentecostal scandals of the 1980s, centering on the work of TV preachers such as Jim "PTL" Bakker and Jimmy "I have sinned" Swaggart, this term was stretched into "televangelist" -- even though most members of that tribe were not doing evangelism.

This brings us to a recent story in The Los Angeles Times that starts like this:

Authorities are investigating a Mumbai-based televangelist whose radical sermons are believed to have influenced at least one of the men who killed hostages in a Bangladesh cafe this month.

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Must-read think piece: German activist and scribe visits Islamic State, with his eyes open

Must-read think piece: German activist and scribe visits Islamic State, with his eyes open

Journalists have been known to do crazy things, dangerous things and sometimes both at the same time. For example, how is the outside world going to know what makes the Islamic State tick without on site, independently reported information?

Thus, German peace activist and "Why Do You Kill, Zaid?" author Jurgen Todenhofer, headed into the heart of ISIS -- guaranteed that he would be harmed. His family thought he was crazy. In an online think piece entitled "ISLAMIC STATE -- Seven Impressions Of A Difficult Journey" -- he notes:

The guarantee turned out to be genuine, and the ISIS stuck to their agreement during our visits to Mosul and Raqqa. Though, we were under surveillance by the secret service for most of the time and had to hand over our mobile phones and laptops. Also, all of our pictures and photos were inspected at the end of the journey. ...
On several occasions, ISIS and I ran into heated disagreements about details of the journey. Let me tell you that arguing with heavily armed ISIS fighters isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. I was close to abandoning the journey twice during that time. In view of the acute danger that all of the involved were dealing with daily, they often were short tempered. Yet, overall, I was treated correctly.

As the title states, Todenhofer offers seven observations about what he saw. This is not neutral, "American model of the press" material. However, I thought that journalists and those who care about religion news would want to see this.

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times. But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD – Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

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Bloodshed in Saudi Arabia, for some non-religious reasons

Some of the world’s most important religion-news stories are also the hardest for your GetReligionistas to write about because they happen over and over and over. Are we supposed to do a post a week on some of these topics? Criticize the same holes in mainstream stories again and again?

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