Monday, July 11, 2016

Saudi Arabia: A Case Study in the Evil of Religion

For religious fundamentalists of all faiths, one of the most terrifying things is the prospect of having to think for oneself and to reach moral decisions without someone telling you what those decisions should be.  For leaders of such faiths, the thought of the faithful thinking for themselves is even more terrifying because thinking on the part of the faithful threatens their power and control - and often the plush financial benefits that go with such control.  Saudi Arabia is a case study in this phenomenon and demonstrates the manner in which power hungry and self-centered clerics perverted what they allege to be "holy scripture" and turn the faith they claim to be protecting into something far different than what it was originally.  There are, of course, similar parallels with fundamentalist Christianity where the Gospel message has become almost completely ignored as focus is directed to selective passages that further the agenda - and provide salve to the psychosis of - the faith leadership.  In whatever its form, fundamentalist religion is anti-knowledge and anti-human rights.  It deserves no respect and zero deference.  A piece in the New York Times looks at who Islam has become truly evil within Saudi Arabia and how the evil has has been exported.  Here are excerpts:
For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices. . . . But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.
For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.
[H]e argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.  There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does.
It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.
Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.
Inside the kingdom, all other religions are suppressed. Not only are there no public churches, there is no Church’s Chicken. (It is called Texas Chicken in the kingdom.) When asked about this, Saudis deny that this reflects intolerance. They compare their country to the Vatican, saying it is a unique place for Muslims, with its own rules.
Officials I spoke with were upset by the kingdom’s increasingly troubled reputation abroad and said over and over that they supported “moderate Islam.”
But what exactly did they mean by “moderate Islam”? Unpacking that term made it clear how wide the values gap is between Saudi Arabia and its American ally. The kingdom’s “moderate Islam” publicly beheads criminals, punishes apostates and prevents women from traveling abroad without the permission of a male “guardian.”  Don’t even ask about gay rights.
The Saudi royal family is terrified that the jihadist fervor inflaming the region will catch fire at home and threaten its control. So it has marshaled the state’s religious apparatus to condemn the jihadists and proclaim the religious duty of obedience to the rulers.
In the early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.
He formed an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and managed religious affairs.
That mix proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.
Fast forward to 2016, and the main players have transformed because of time and oil wealth. The royal family has grown from a group of scrappy desert dwellers into a sprawling clan awash in palaces and private jets. The Wahhabi establishment has evolved from a puritan reform movement into a bloated state bureaucracy.
It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.
And there are fatwas that arm extremists with religious justification. There is one fatwa, still available in English on a government website and signed by the previous grand mufti, that states, “Whoever refuses to follow the straight path deserves to be killed or enslaved in order to establish justice, maintain security and peace and safeguard lives, honor and property.”
It goes on: “Slavery in Islam is like a purifying machine or sauna in which those who are captured enter to wash off their dirt and then they come out clean, pure and safe, from another door.”
If the clerical attacks on Mr. Ghamdi were loud, the blowback from society was more painful. His tribe issued a statement, disowning him and calling him “troubled and confused.” His cellphone rang day and night with callers shouting at him. He came home to find graffiti on the wall of his house. And a group of men showed up at his door, demanding to “mix” with the family’s women. His sons — he has nine children — called the police.
Mr. Ghamdi had not broken any laws and never faced legal action. But in Saudi Arabia’s close-knit society, the attacks echoed through his family. The relatives of his eldest son’s fiancĂ©e called off their wedding, not wanting to associate their family with his.
But there is a split in society between the conservatives who want to maintain what they consider the kingdom’s pure Islamic identity and the liberals (in the Saudi context) who want more personal freedoms. Liberals make cases like Mr. Ghamdi’s all the time. But sheikhs don’t, which is why he was branded a traitor.
“We sent our message, and the goal was not for us to keep appearing and to get famous,” she said. “It was to send a message to society that religion is not customs and traditions. Religion is something else.”

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