Leave Revolution in Saudi Arabia to the Saudis
Leave Revolution in Saudi Arabia to the Saudis
In November 2003, George W. Bush described what he termed the third
pillar of America's security: "global democratic revolution." If Iraq
and Afghanistan were the first "beneficiaries" of this revolution, then
it seems almost certain that Saudi Arabia will feature somewhere in
Bush's revolutionary plans.
The post-September 11 story goes that Saudi Arabia is the ideological
and financial underpinning for global terrorism and therefore the only
way to secure America is to liberalize and secularize Saudi Arabia.
That such an accusation should be made now - nearly 80 years after the
modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded -- is strange. Saudi Arabia has
been run on effectively the same ideological line since its inception.
Throughout that time, Americans have been involved in most all aspects
of Saudi society - including the education system - and no such claims
were ever made. In fact, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the
United States has been a mutually beneficial and friendly one. Although
most Americans wouldn't necessarily agree with the practices or policies
of the Kingdom, the fact remains that there has been little criticism
from those who have lived or worked in the country.
However, Saudi Arabia is not America. It was founded on the basis of
Islam and Islam has provided the guiding principles for the nation. The
idea that religion should be separated from the affairs of the state is
viewed as a heresy. In Islam secularism equates with apostasy - a fact
that clearly shows the fallacy and dangerousness of George W. Bush's
messianic vision of democratizing the region.
For the visitor to Riyadh, the first thing that he will see when exiting
King Khalid International Airport is the airport mosque. The
architecturally magnificent mosque, with its dome, minarets and ornate
structure, alongside a modern airport provides a powerful symbolism for
Saudi Arabia's fusion of the technology of the modern world with
Indeed, mosques are everywhere in the Kingdom. Literally. Stand in any
Riyadh suburb and you can see, dotting the skyline, at least four or
five of the green lights that identify the minarets. Wait for the time
of prayer and one can hear the call to prayer reverberating through the
air from not one, but perhaps dozens, of mosques. Travel outside the
cities, and most every service station is accompanied by a mosque.
Alongside the roads are signs exhorting travelers to "remember Allah,"
"give thanks to Allah," and "glorify Allah." Board any Saudi airline and
the pilot will begin by reading the prayer for traveling. When the plane
lands at its destination, gratitude is given to God for delivering them
Whereas we in the West are accustomed to seeing the latest throwaway pop
star attract thousands of young people, in Saudi Arabia the ones who
draw the big crowds and command the most respect amongst the youth are
the Islamic scholars and speakers.
The Saudi people are religious even though no-one would identify himself
as such. Praying five times a day in a mosque; sending one's children to
learn Qur'an; believing absolutely in one's faith; and living one's life
according to the rules of Islam is normal. It's part of their national
identity. The problem is that for many in the West, such devotion to
religion is seen as extreme and disturbing.
Despite these realities, the Saudi people are being compared to the
Iraqi people as people struggling under the yoke of some hated
oppressor. Saudi Arabia is not Iraq. What criticism exists amongst
ordinary Saudis for their government exists only because they see their
government as not being sufficiently Islamic and not assertive enough in
its relationship with America.
The fundamental issue for Saudis is not whether their government is a
democracy or a monarchy; the fundamental issue is to what extent their
government is implementing Islamic law in both its domestic and foreign
affairs. A replacement of their Islamic government with a secular
government isn't what they hope for, it's what they fear.
That the President of the United States should believe that democracy
and secularism should and can be imposed upon Saudi society points to a
fundamental disconnect between America's ambitions and the nature of
human societies. It also points to the hubris that has overtaken
American foreign policy.
Societies can't be changed by force or revolution, and it speaks ill of
the government's claimed conservatism that they don't know this. Edmund
Burke, the father of conservatism, wrote over 200 years ago: "The nature
of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible
complexity; and therefore no simple disposition of direction of power
can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his
He wrote this with regards to French Revolution, so what then of a
revolution that is being imposed by a foreign government that is viewed
throughout the Muslim world as being irredeemably hostile towards Islam
Those Muslims who fight America do so believing they are defending
Islam. If America continues to interfere in the affairs of Saudi Arabia,
attempting to bully the government towards secularism and liberalism, it
will have an opposite effect to what is intended. America's security
doesn't lie in proving Bin Laden's claims of a war against Islam as
being true; America's security lies in proving Bin Laden wrong by
leaving the Muslim world to choose their own destiny, in their own time
and in their own way.
Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public
Affairs Committee (AMPAC).