ISIS, the Middle East's do-gooders

Among people in Iraq and Syria who are threatened with the loss of their homes or their lives, and in the eyes of millions watching from afar, ISIS is evil. Members of ISIS view it differently, however. As far as they are concerned, ISIS is on a humanitarian mission to rid the world of sin and is acting according to the will of God. There are also many, especially in the Middle East, who sympathise with that view, regarding ISIS – for all its brutality – as waging a necessary struggle against tyranny and corruption.

It's important not to lose sight of this fact when considering what to do about ISIS and sectarian conflicts more generally. Military intervention may reduce the immediate threat but it doesn't – and can't – address the underlying problem.

The problem itself is easier to describe than to solve. Put simply, it is that ISIS and similar movements in other parts of the world claim a monopoly on religious truth and seek to impose it on others through force.

There is no quick or simple way to put an end to this but the goal should be to win acceptance for freedom of belief as a universal right. There is little hope of achieving this unless governments assume some responsibility by abandoning policies that legitimise religious discrimination and sectarianism.

Unfortunately, almost all governments in the Middle East are offenders in this respect (look up the latest International Religious Freedom Report from the US State Department or read my book, Arabs Without God) but the chief offender is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia not only practises and promotes the most extreme forms of discrimination but, of all the countries in the region, has the most influence among Muslims worldwide.

The reasons for this are partly historical: the kingdom, after all, was the Prophet’s homeland, and so Saudi – i.e. Wahhabi – religious ideas and practices are often perceived as the most "correct" or authentic. 

Since the early 1980s Saudi Arabia has also been one of the world’s largest exporters of religion. This was triggered partly by fears about the spread of Shia Islam after the Iranian revolution and partly by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which, among other things, led to the creation of large numbers of Saudi-influenced religious schools in Pakistan. 

Saudi-based foundations and individuals also made vast quantities of Islamic literature available in many parts of the world, either cheaply or free of charge. Some of this missionary work was aimed at steering other Muslims in the direction of Wahhabi Islam and in many countries it found a receptive market. 

Other material was aimed at a securing new converts, with books such as A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam which can be read on the internet and also freely reprinted by anyone, so long as nothing is altered. In the United States, English translations of the Qur’an, printed under the auspices of the Iqraa Charitable Society in Jeddah, became widely available free of charge.

Largely for political reasons, Saudi Arabia has now joined the American-led military alliance against ISIS, though it has also provided most of the building-blocks for ISIS's ideology – prime among these being the idea that it's OK to foist your religious rules on other people is you think God has told you to do so.

Although there are some theological differences between ISIS's ideology and Saudi Wahhabism, ISIS has borrowed very heavily from Wahhabi doctrine, as David Kirkpatrick pointed out recently in an article for the New York Times:

"For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van."

The depths of intolerance promoted by the Saudi government – and then adopted by organisations like ISIS – can be seen from the most recent State Department report, which begins:

"Freedom of religion [in Saudi Arabia] is neither recognised nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice. According to the 1992 Basic Law, Sunni Islam is the official religion and the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

"The legal system is based on the government’s application of the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited, and there is no separation between state and religion. Shia and other Muslims who did not adhere to the government’s interpretation of Islam faced political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, under-representation in official institutions, restrictions on religious practice, and restrictions on places of worship and community centres. 

"The government detained individuals on charges of insulting Islam, encouraging or facilitiating conversion from Islam, "witchcraft and sorcery", and for engaging in private non-Muslim religious services. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) continued to harass and abuse individuals for religious reasons at a similar rate as the previous year. The CPVPV continued to receive periodic online criticism, both in traditional and social media. There were also reports some citizens had resisted CPVPV officer harassment. 

"Government revision of school textbooks to remove objectionable content continued, but was delayed repeatedly by bureaucratic obstacles. Some intolerant content remained, even in revised textbooks, including justification for the social exclusion and killing of Islamic minorities and "apostates"; claims that Jews, Christians, and Islamic minorities do not properly adhere to monotheism; and intolerant allusions to Shia and Sufi Muslims and other religious groups ..."

Despite the abundant evidence for these abuses, there is very little effort internationally to do anything about it. Saudi Arabia gets away with it because it's seen as a valuable trading partner and a strategic ally which, unlike Iran, is not regarded as a direct threat to Israel. 

Although the kingdom has been slowly reforming in some areas, freedom of belief and an end to government-approved intolerance cannot be achieved without overturning the kingdom's Basic Law which states, among other things, that "God's Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet" are its constitution, that the government "derives power" from the Qur'an and the Prophet's tradition, that Saudi society is "based on the principle of adherence to God's command" and that children must be "brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith".

Under a new law introduced earlier this year, anyone in Saudi Arabia who calls for this to be changed is liable to be charged with terrorism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 29 September 2014