Friday, June 23, 2006

Unity and Division in Islamic Discourse

Abdullah tells Saudis they must accept diversity By Khalid al-Dakhil

Khalid al-Dakhil's excellent article picks up on a speech made by King Abdullah in Buraidah, the main city in the conservative Nejdi province of Qassim.

Here's the money shot:

"I have said, and will repeat here before you, that there are two things on which leniency would not be acceptable: Islamic Shari'ah, and our national unity. I would say to you quite frankly that it is not in tune with either the principles of the benevolent Shari'ah, nor the requirements of national unity that some should – out of ignorance or in bad faith – divide our citizens into categories that have no authority whatsoever, saying this person is a secularist, this one is a liberal, this one is a hypocrite and this one is an Islamic extremist, and so on."

"The truth of the matter is that all citizens are, God willing, loyalist. We do not doubt the religious faith, or national loyalty, of any person, until we are presented with absolute evidence that there are – God forbid – reasons for doubt."

"I plead with all citizens, and students, journalists and writers in particular, to rise above such conduct and recall God's words in the Quran: 'Believers, no people should deride other people, for the latter may be better than the former; nor should any woman deride other women, for these could be better than the former. Do not slander one another or assign to one another scornful nicknames; cursed be a scornful nickname once one has accepted the Faith. Those that do not recant are indeed transgressors.' The Prophet, God's peace and blessings be upon him, said: 'When someone calls another 'infidel', one of them shall be so'."


Al-Dakhil's excellent article argues that Abdullah sees no conflict between pluralism and Shari'ah, provided that all are good Muslims and good Saudis. Those who seek to label others, to accuse them of being bad Muslims, are sowing discord. I don't know if Abdullah used the term 'fitna', but that would appear to be the concept he's alluding to.

I'm going to get a little theoretical here - I will try to keep my language simple, but it might get a little abstruse.

Basically what appears to be at stake here is two different instrumentalisations of Islamic discourse, each the product of different points in the religion's history.

On the one hand, we have Islam used to advocate unity in pluralism. The paradigm for this kind of discourse is the hejira, Mohammed's flight to Mecca, where he developed the Shari'ah as a means for the warring tribes of that town to live together. The ability of Islam to achieve such unity was its great strength as an organisational principle on a landmass whose prior political structure had been based on a dynamic equibilibrium between sedentary pastoralists and traders on the one hand and raiding Bedu nomads on the other. Once all stopped fighting one another and joined in a communal project - which, granted, was a long process in which much blood was spilt - they were almost unstoppable, creating a Caliphate that spread from Persia to al-Andalus.

Which brings me on to the second instrumentalisation: Islam as a differentiator. During Islam's expansionary phase, it was necessary to establish a clear us/them divide so that the cohesion of the organisation, the umma, could be maintained and the proper martial attitude adopted towards foes. Behind the frontlines of the expansion,  non-Muslims were obliged to pay jizya, essentially a protection tax. Many converted to Islam, to the consternation of the Arab elite who saw that their privileges would be diluted by such mass conversions. Arguing that the conversions were motivated by tax-avoidance rather than through belief, the Umayyads forced the conquered to continue paying the jizya, inspiring a wave of rebellions that eventually destabilised the Umayyad Caliphate and ushered in the era of the Abbasids.

The Saudi Arabian state, as political structure based on the hegemony of a Saudi/Wahhabi alliance, has long exploited these two discourses to shore up its legitimacy and to discredit opposition. That much is self-evident: what is particularly interesting about it, though, is how the discourses are being used by people outside the state apparatus to preserve their privileges. It is worth noting that the most conservative sentiments in the country appear to emanate from Qaseem, in the Nejd. It is an area that appears to contribute very little to the economy: they have no oil, they have no trade routes. What can they offer the state, then, in return for access to oil wealth? Unflinching loyalty about sums it up.

The problem with these kind of clientelistic relationships - ones that are based on attitude rather than on material exchange - is that they quite soon turn into craven brown-nosing competitions. You may remember that during the Egyptian presidential elections, local businessmen took out ads supporting Mubarak, with their own names displayed prominently. It's a very dangerous prisoner's dilemma. If you defect, you are cast out: no more access to state patronage, no more access to crucial business networks, no more access to cheap cash from friendly banks. But because you're competing with other people for preferential treatment, and because ultimately the state's judgment of your loyalty is entirely subjective, you have to continually outdo yourself and others in your expressions of loyalty. In Saudi Arabia, it has turned into a game of "I'm a better Muslim than you". Before you know it, you're having to deal with a bunch of takfiri zealots.

Of course, it gets even more complicated. I'm reminded of Vaclav Havel's Soviet grocer with a sign in his window saying 'Workers of the World, Unite!'. Havel wrote that the shopkeeper fools himself into believing that he is displyaing the slogan sincerely, for otherwise he would simply be admitting that he was afraid and obedient. Similarly in the Middle East: the emotional investment of clients in their relationships with power mean that they cannot simply switch views overnight. They must be persuaded and cajoled in a way that preserves their dignity, which means appealing to them in a way that does not conflict with the underlying logic of the relationship.

So, to my mind, that's the context for King Abdullah's speech. By reviving the hejira discourse, by pointing out that the Shari'ah and pluralism are not incompatible - that, in fact, pluralism is made possible through Shari'ah - the arguments of the takfiris can be undermined while allowing conservative Muslims to preserve their dignity. It's an incredibly nuanced discursive strategy. It will be interesting to see if it works.


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