The Arab Hall of Mirrors
by Stephen Schwartz
As Westerners, as well as Muslims around the globe, watch the development of events in and associated with the Saudi kingdom, it becomes increasingly obvious to all that a curtain of deception, distortion, disinformation, and deceit stands between Saudi reality and the world. I once called this the "Matrix" effect. That is, I, like other Sufis, saw the film The Matrix as a probably-unintended allegory of Wahhabism and its control of world Islam, and the combatants against it, with their use of mental discipline, martial arts, and "miracles," as comparable to the spiritual opponents of the Saudi/Wahhabi power structure.
But Saudi Arabia is now clearly in crisis. The Saudi Matrix is disintegrating. The terrorists of Al-Qaida and its related groups, the followers of Bin Laden, Zarqawi, and others, have come back to the peninsula to wage jihad there, where they were never supposed to appear.
Al-Qaida and its allies were indoctrinated in Wahhabism with the intention of extending that ideology from Saudi Arabia to the rest of the worldwide Islamic community, or ummah. But different jihadists had, and have, different fantasies about the future. Some simply want to expel "unbelievers" from Muslim lands, and view Wahhabism as the means to unite the Muslims to that end. Others genuinely believe they can make all the Muslims in the world adhere to the rigid form of Islam that Wahhabism embodies, with its strictures against spirituality, music, the honoring of the dead, and other traditional Islamic practices. And still others, including major elements of the "Wahhabi lobby" in the United States, really do dream of conquering the whole world.
Westerners believe that the overthrow of the Saudi royal family is a major item on the agenda of all such groups. But belief in that common wisdom is a mistake; because terrorists like Bin Laden have never called for the destruction of the House of Saud, or for struggle against it. Rather, they demand it change its ways, and appeal to those Saudis who oppose its alliance with the West to influence it through petitions and boycotts of Western products.
The Wahhabi jihad was a useful weapon of the Saudis so long as it was confined to overseas operations: to Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors, Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Chechnya, and other places where conflicts among Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims offered opportunities for Wahhabi infiltration. The Wahhabis could claim their "pure" Islam made them better fighters, more capable of the sacrifices necessary to win in jihad. In certain cases their appeal was undeniably attractive. In the ex-Soviet Muslim countries, clumsy transitions and mishandling of religious issues made the Wahhabis appear as representatives of "independent" and legitimate Islam. Among the Palestinians, the manifest corruption and abuse of the Arab populace by the followers of Yasir Arafat made the neo-Wahhabis of Hamas appear as virtuous and heroic. And they even had an appeal based on social improvement rather than war: Pakistan's state education system was so bad, and so unaccommodating to the needs of parents as well as children, that the free miseducation offered by Wahhabi and similar madrassas appeared as an authentic alternative.
In North Africa, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, however, Wahhabism was an obvious intruder. Egyptian Muslim dissidents hated their rulers but were unprepared to surrender their cosmopolitan culture for the sterile life they knew existed under Saudi domination. Algerians were disillusioned with socialism but were equally repelled by Wahhabi demands that they give up the aspects of European culture they had inherited from the French. In addition, the Egyptians had taken the Suez Canal away from the Western powers, and the Algerians had beaten the French, with no help from Saudi Arabia or the Wahhabi movement, and they were not about to let a bunch of Saudi-funded interlopers tell them how to wage a struggle.
In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Chechnya, Muslims suffered cultural and physical assault, but their Islam was firmly rooted in the "northern," Ottoman and Sufi traditions. They were not inclined to defer to Arab Islam in any form.
Then came September 11th, and 15 out of 19 of the suicide pilots turned out to be Saudis. The world, including millions of Muslims who had not signed up for this jihad, began to look at the Saudis with dismay. For decades, the kingdom had been a pillar of the world order. Now, it appeared, something was wrong. None of the participants in the 9/11 plot were products of refugee camps, or even of poverty; they were, overwhelmingly, children of the Saudi middle class.
Inside Saudi Arabia itself, liberal dissidents began to raise their voices, and to argue that the country had been brought to a state of international disrepute -- and its alliance with the U.S., which guaranteed its security, harmed -- by Wahhabism. In the U.S., government agencies as well as private citizens, began to demand answers -- why 15 out of 19? Who funded al-Qaida? How was the money transmitted? What role did Islamic charities play in the process that led to 9/11? And so, even in the higher reaches of the Bush administration, the Saudis began to be viewed with disfavor.
In the U.S., the Saudis replied with slick but doomed propaganda campaigns, as well as waves of insult directed against those like myself who had documented their misdeeds. But all such efforts failed. The Saudi royals were increasingly caught between a dissatisfied American ally, a bloodthirsty terrorist cadre they had themselves created, and a growing demand for reform. Saudi subjects, as well as foreign observers, pointed out that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving -- an enormous obstacle to a middle-class life style, for the biggest middle class in the Arab world. Saudi subjects called for changes in the state educational curriculum, which teaches to this day that all other religions, and all other forms of Islam, are worthy of contempt, that Muslims should not travel to non-Muslim countries except out of extreme necessity, and that martyrdom in jihad is a worthy goal for the young. The Saudi religious minorities -- non-Wahhabi Sunnis, the Shia Muslims who are the majority in the Eastern Province where the oil deposits are found, and Sufis -- began to come out into the open and speak up, after 70 years of suppression at sword-point.
Beleaguered on all sides, the faction of the royal family that had fostered al-Qaida brought the terrorist movement back into the peninsula. That, at least, is what Saudi liberal dissidents, who are far more numerous than most Westerners realize, believe. The Wahhabi fanatics were repatriated to the kingdom to dramatize the message the royal family always wanted the West to hear: that if the royal family falls, or is compelled to surrender any of its power, the only alternative is something worse: Bin Laden ruling the peninsula. But Bin Laden's patrons already rule the peninsula. Al-Qaida and its imitators returned to Saudi Arabia with two other goals: to operate in the rearguard of the American liberation of Iraq, inciting young Saudis to go kill and die in places like Falluja; and to intimidate the liberal reformers.
And so began the cycle of terror within the borders of the kingdom, including the atrocities recently seen in Khobar, and further assassinations and kidnappings of Westerners. Yet Saudi reformers point out peculiar aspects of these events. Al-Qaida and its allies do not act against the lives of the Saudi rulers, but against their credibility. Although there are thousands of Saudi princes and princesses in the peninsula and scattered around the world, not one has ever been attacked by al-Qaida or its allies. Except for a raid on a police station, not one of the Saudi institutions found here, there, and everywhere, in the kingdom and beyond, has ever been assaulted. No banks are robbed; no government agencies bombed. Thus, al-Qaida and its allies appear to be the first radical movement in history that does not aim its actions against its alleged enemy. Only foreigners are consistently targeted; and the terrorists have a peculiar ability to get away from the scene, and to escape detection.
To Saudi liberals, all this is evidence that al-Qaida and its allies are still supported by a faction within the royal family, which protects them. When I and others are interviewed in Western media, we experience a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. That is, everybody now knows that the Saudis have been less than enthusiastic about cracking down on al-Qaida; many people know that the financiers of the organization, men named by the U.S. authorities like the businessman Yasin al-Qadi, continue to walk the streets of the kingdom unmolested; it is common knowledge that the Islamic charities, which are official arms of the Saudi authorities, assisted in the conspiracy, and the whole world knows that tens of thousands of Wahhabi clerics, who are paid functionaries of the state, continue to preach violent jihad in Iraq and against the West in general.
And yet we are asked, in wonderment, "are you saying the Saudi royal family supports the terrorists?"
Well, what else could we be saying? Not the whole royal family, but enough of them for the terrorists to operate with impunity inside the kingdom. Enough of them for the Saudi government to pretend to shut down the terror-funding charities and then allow them to continue to operate. Enough of them for the Saudi response to al-Qaida to remain little more than verbal.
Many Westerners continue to believe that the Saudi royals acquiesce to the operations of the extremists out of fear. That may now be true; they may be afraid that with al-Qaida and its allies back on Saudi ground, the situation may slip out of control, and the anger of the Saudi masses -- including both the liberal reformers and the jihadists who are happy when throats are cut in faraway places but perturbed when it occurs on their doorsteps -- may spill over into disorder, demonstrations, the complete discrediting of the regime, and its collapse. But nothing could be worse than the continued kidnapping and murder of foreigners, on top of the oppression inflicted on Saudi society.
I and the Saudi reformers who talk to me believe that the old argument that the Saudis supported al-Qaida out of fear they would be attacked was bogus then and is bogus now. They have not been attacked. They are not being attacked. Their princes and princesses continue to jet around the world, to shop and party, to visit bars and brothels, without a single one of them ever being harmed. And that is not because the terrorists were paid off. No terror movement in history could show that much discipline.
Rather, the American technicians who keep Saudi helicopters in the air are killed, and the Filipino domestic servants who clean their homes are slaughtered. Foreigners who were lured to Saudi Arabia in search of high pay sacrifice their lives. The Saudi rulers give up nothing.
I no longer see the capacity of the Saudis to fool the world, with the oleaginous Adel al-Jubeir bleating about their victimization, the arrogant Ambassador to the U.S. Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz lecturing American politicians and journalists, and phony pollsters assuring the West that it is our fault that Saudis allegedly worship bin Laden, as a parallel to The Matrix. No, something else is at work here, which I have come to call the "Arab Hall of Mirrors."
I predict I will be assailed as a politically-incorrect racist for making such a statement, but there is something in their culture that leads Arabs, especially those who enjoy power and wealth, to believe they can accomplish anything by manipulation and diversion. It is this that leads them to argue that they also are targeted by al-Qaida, when none of them has ever been attacked; to claim that they are pursuing and suppressing terrorists, when terror proliferates; to promise they will shut down terrorist money networks when the financiers continue to create new enterprises and new charities, with the same goals as before; to protest that they have changed their school curricula when the textbooks still preach hate; to call on a half-dozen Wahhabi imams to denounce terror and to hope that the West will not find out that the same Wahhabi imams, within hours of their denunciations, have qualified them, or withdrawn them, or otherwise made clear that they are playing a game.
To the Arabs, the game is obvious. To non-Arab Muslims, and to the West, the game is invisible. That is how the Arab Hall of Mirrors works. In support of my view on this, I recall some recent anecdotal evidence.
The first is private, but I feel compelled to share it. An American reporter of my acquaintance interviewed two representatives of the "Wahhabi lobby" in the U.S., both Saudis, one young, one old. The younger Saudi insisted that he himself had never been a Wahhabi, that Islamic organizations in the U.S. were dedicated to taking their distance from extremism, and that September 11th had been as much of a shock to him as to ordinary Americans. The older Saudi sat at the table silently, but with a broad smile, and at the end of the interview, he winked.
The reporter was convinced that the wink was more important than the interview, and I am inclined to agree. A small detail, but an interesting one.
A bigger example of the "Hall of Mirrors" effect came some weeks ago when American media reported on the case of Abdurrahman Alamoudi, the bagman caught with $340,000 in crisp, new bills, as he was about to fly from Britain to Syria. Alamoudi, who had been associated with many operations of the "Wahhabi lobby" in the U.S., claimed he was handed the money by a silent Libyan in a London hotel.
But at the beginning of June Alamoudi and a Libyan held by the Saudis, named Muhammad Ismail, came up with a new story: Libyan dictator Muammar Khadafy had, it was said, given the money to pay for the assassination of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Abdullah was considered a possible reform leader until his recent allegations that terror acts in the kingdom were carried out by "Zionists." Adel al-Jubeir, in the presence of an unprotesting representative of the U.S. State Department, explained in Washington that this referred to people going on American television and calling for the dismemberment of the kingdom -- people who talk to people inside Saudi Arabia, stirring them up. Not to be too vain, but I think he meant people like me. But while I work with Saudi liberal reformers, some of whom do call for the establishment of a federative state in Arabia, I do not work with or for terrorists, nor would I, even to bring down the House of Saud.
I do not believe the terrorists in Saudi Arabia work for Zionists and I do not believe Khadafy paid for an attack on Abdullah. I do believe that the Saudis want to discredit Khadafy for his recent turn to cooperation with the U.S. and want to boost the credibility of Abdullah. And I know as fact that the Saudis would prefer that the real activities of Abdurrahman Alamoudi not be disclosed to the American authorities, and that the powerful Al-Amoudi business interests in the kingdom, run by his close relatives, would much prefer Abdurrahman Alamoudi to be silenced, or considered insane, or otherwise cease to be a problem for them.
Either way, it is clear that the Arab Hall of Mirrors is driving some of its inhabitants mad. They can no longer control their own manipulations, which have become more and more improbable and bizarre. Let us, therefore, leave them to it. For the sake of the world, let us no longer be taken in by their protestations of innocence. Let the Americans who keep their technology operating come home, with their throats uncut; let the Filipinas who clean their houses go home, with the money they have made. Let the Saudis find their own way out of the chaos -- but let us help those Saudi reformers who want to replace the Hall of Mirrors with a modern political structure, a written constitution, an elected government, religious liberty, and safety and security for all who would enter its territory.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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