This opinion piece was originally published in the April 27 version of Fourth Estate.
On February 18, the White House held a three day summit on “countering violent extremism,” and although they never explicitly specified they would only talk about violence committed in the name of Islam (or by Muslims), the summit focused only on such violence (ignoring the national gun violence epidemic, state-sponsored violence abroad, sexual violence on college campuses, and police officers who gun down civilians with impunity). The choice of never exactly specifying that Muslim violence would be the focus of the summit was an interesting one, albeit a little foolish, considering the agenda. But it’s understandable that White House officials may not want to offend either their Muslim American citizens or else their Muslim foreign allies upon whom they depend on for economic/political reasons.
Still, never exactly specifying what the violent groups and individuals discussed at the conference have in common is dodgy at best, and at worst, it seeks to distract from important information. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and some violent individuals acting independently of these groups all have something in common, and it’s not Orthodox Islam. (Were it Islam, of course, approximately 1/5th of the world would lend itself to such nihilistic violence, and all it takes is two eyes and a brain to see that is not the case.)
The barbaric punishments and laws ISIS levies on the people it occupies in Iraq and Syria are widely known. Beheadings, lashings, amputations, mandatory full covering for women, the expulsion of indigenous Christian and Yezidi communities, et al. Such barbarism understandably warrants a visceral reaction in anyone with a conscience, and it’s understandable to want to end such crimes against humanity directed at a people that have already suffered European colonialism, brutal military dictatorship, war, crippling sanctions, American occupation, insurgency, and now another primitive gang hell-bent on delivering another blow to an already injured people. But what is incomprehensible is the hypocrisy that comes along with not criticizing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ strongest allies in the region, and also one of the greatest state-sponsors of the ideology these violent extremists espouse.
So-called “Islamic extremists” do have something in common (that is not Orthodox Islam), they do have a unifying thread linking them to one another, and they absolutely do have a patron to which they owe their seeming-success to: the royal family of Ibn Saud, whose twisted, backward state has been occupying the two holiest sites for Muslims since the beginning of the 20th century. And one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest military partners? The good ol’ US of A.
In 2010, the United States made the greatest arms sale in its history – to Saudi Arabia. The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allied throughout both states’ violent military operations in the region, including in the U.S.’s backing of the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union (some of whom would later become the Taliban), during the first Gulf War, during the second Gulf War, and during Saudi Arabia’s current war on the Yemeni people, during which hundreds of people have been killed. This is not to distract from the United States’s equally destructive current military operations in the region, including the airstrikes in Iraq/Syria which have killed hundreds and President Obama’s drone program. For all the media sensationalism over the barbaric immolation of the Jordanian pilot by ISIS, the barbaric bombing of civilians fails to get the same degree of attention. And it needs to be said that being burned alive and being bombed are virtually the same in both their mechanics and in the barbarity of those committing the act.
Year after year, Saudi Arabia carries out beheadings, amputations, and lashings, including the most recently publicized lashing of Raif Badawi, a political dissident sentenced to 1,000 lashings that could not all be delivered in a single instance, or he would have died. So America’s military partner in the Arabian peninsula decided to split the punishment over a period of weeks. Migrant workers from South Asia in the Kingdom face exploitation, abuse, and deportation. Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to restrictive dress codes and cannot legally drive, an absurd law that has no precedent in any traditional interpretation of Islamic law. But this is the postmodern, puritanical ideology that links Saudi Arabia with its non-state, equally violent protégés: Wahhabism. A twisted form of an ultra-conservative understanding of Islam called Salafism, Wahhabism adds to the ultra-conservative ideology by maintaining that Muslims who do not conform to its construed, puritanical understanding of Islam are outside the scope of the religion altogether. This means a total disregard for 1400 years of traditional Islamic hermeneutics, the justification of violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims, and an entirely inflexible practice of the religion that was then exported to many parts of the world during the Saudi oil wealth boom of the 1980’s.
Saudi Arabia’s funding of violent groups is not a secret. While secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was revealed to acknowledge the Kingdom’s enormous role in the direct funding of various violent groups, yet the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remained as strong as ever during her tenure. In addition to this direct aid to violent groups, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of dollars into schools, mosques, and books that propagate the Wahhabi ideology.
Just to be clear, this is not to say that all Wahhabists are violent, nor am I referring to the Saudi people. However, if we continue to discuss ways to “combat ISIS,” and if pundits continue to lament the regressive nature of Islam day after day on national television, and most crucially, if we are to take steps to end the tragic human suffering that Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Palestinians, and people from outside the region are suffering at the hands of this rogue group, we need to reject the normalization of the United States government’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
It makes no logical sense to claim concern for the victims of ISIS’s barbarity while simultaneously expressing no concern for the role of a key US ally in committing the exact same acts. There is something terribly hypocritical about the White House holding a three-day summit focusing entirely on (Islamic) extremism only weeks after President Obama (and other world leaders) returned from mourning Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah, who was hailed by the BBC as a “reformer and a vocal advocate for peace in the Middle East.” It is inconsistent to claim concern for Christian victims of ISIS and then turn a blind eye to the US’s support for a state with virtually no freedom of religion.
To be consistent in our rejection of violent extremism, we need to condemn not only ISIS, but also the morally reprehensible geostrategic alliances that the United States government has with violent states such as Saudi Arabia, as well as with all the authoritarian regimes it continues to prop up across the region. Living in a democracy means that we are accountable for the actions of our elected government officials, and when said democracy is locked in a relationship with a state that propagates everything that we espouse to abhor, it’s speaks only to the failures of our principals. When the so-called “leader of the free world” travels across the world to mourn the death of a brutal tyrant and the only discussion in the national media involved Michelle Obama’s dress while visiting the Kingdom, it speaks volumes about how committed we actually are to unequivocally rejecting injustices and violence.
Putting aside ISIS’s media spectacle (gleefully facilitated by the American corporate media), the suffering endured by human beings across the region at the hands of violent criminals is catastrophic. As the United States backs its trusted ally in yet another war in the Middle East, during which those suffering are primarily impoverished civilians, it is important to remember that whether the suffering is a result of ISIS, Saudi Arabia, or the United States (whether directly or indirectly) the consequences of such endless violence are never heard in the statistics: broken families, homelessness, hunger, disability, and lifelong psychological trauma. Although the death toll may flash across our newsfeeds from time to time, such dispassionate reporting only glosses over the fact that wars have their ends in families. As long as Americans quietly acquiesce to their tax dollars being sent to violent authoritarian states, they are quietly acquiescing to barbaric violence, to a loss of dignity, and to broken families.
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