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To Prolong their Dictatorships, Arab Rulers Resort to the Islamic Creed

Updated: February 2010
The controversy over the compatibility between Islam and democracy intensified since the Bush administration adopted Arab democracy as a weapon against terrorism. While empirical studies since 2000 confirm the common belief that Muslim states have fewer political rights than non-Muslim states, the question as to why such a condition exists remains unsatisfactorily answered. This article will seek a plausible explanation in Arab countries. It will argue that Islam and Arab politics are inseparable, that Islamic reform is farfetched, and that Arab democracy is a mirage. The article will focus on the role of Islam in creating a culture of obedience to hierarchical authority; on how Arab kings and presidents resort to Islam to indoctrinate their subjects into believing that blind obedience to absolute rule is a form of piety; and, on why the Arab masses embrace such preaching. Islam, together with the security forces and the poverty of the masses allow Arab rulers to hand power from father to son. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria will exemplify.

In response to the London bombings on July 7, 2005 more than 500 British Muslim religious leaders issued a fatwa stating that Islam condemns the use of violence and the destruction of innocent lives. Also, British Muslim leaders condemned on July 6, 2007 the two failed car-bombing attempts in London (June 29, 2007) and the failed car-bombing attempt at Glasgow airport (June 30, 2007).

On October 12, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics of different sects: Shi’ites, Sunnis, Ibadis, Ismailis, and Zaidis, sent a twenty-nine-page letter entitled A Common Word Between Us and You to Pope Benedict XVI and to twenty-six other leaders of Christian churches worldwide urging greater understanding between Islam and Christianity in the interest of world peace.

While admirable, such fatwas, condemnations, and letters are, nonetheless, apologists’ attempts at changing Islam’s image in the West in the aftermath of the atrocities of September 11, 2001 from a religion of violence to a religion of peace. The signatories would have done a better deed had they argued against the intolerant and the violent verses in the Quran; better yet, articulated approaches towards abrogating them. The signatories would have done a better deed had they taken steps to encourage the scientific examination of the historicity of the Quran and the Sunna without the fear of intimidation by the ulama or prosecution under blasphemy laws.

These signatories are not the villains. These individuals are enlightened, religiously moderate, and modern thinkers. The villains are the fanatics who exploit the extreme, the intolerant, and the violent parts of the Islamic creed to justify their misdeeds.

The two-day UN Interfaith Conference held on November 12 and 13, 2008 in New York, proposed and attended by the Saudi monarch and more than 50 heads of state and other officials, including the American President George W. Bush, to promote "dialogue on religion and culture" is yet another post September 11 propaganda effort aimed at softening Saudi Arabia’s image abroad than to soften the Wahhabi agenda and practices. If Saudi Arabia were serious about promoting “dialogue on religion and culture”, the place to start is Saudi school curricula, mosques sermons, and media propaganda at home and abroad, not theatrics on the world stage. If the world leaders who attended this performance were serious about promoting "dialogue on religion and culture" the first step is to make their Wahhabi friends cease lecturing hatred and violence against other Islamic sects and religions. The world would become a safer place if Wahhabi clerics stop indoctrinating the populace that Jihad against non-Wahhabis is the short route to paradise and cease proselytizing others into Saudi Islam. Is it surprising that the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and other Wahhabi clerics were conspicuously absent from all of the above-mentioned events?

Quranic Readings to Suit Moderate Muslims, Islamists, and Jihadists
The Quran often gives Muslims contradictory inspirations on a given subject of political or social relevance. On Muslim relations with Christians and Jews, for example, a moderate Muslim would focus on peaceful and tolerant verses like 29:46: “Do not argue with the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] unless in a fair way.” Similar injunctions are found in, among others, 2:62, 2:136, 2:256 and the peaceful part of 5:82. A moderate would point out that Islam reveres Christian and Jewish prophets and messengers and that the Quran dedicates Chapter 14 with its 52 verses to Abraham, and Chapter 12 with its 111 verses to Joseph. To Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Quran dedicates Chapter 19 with its 98 verses. The Quran refers to Islam in 2:135 as the Religion of Abraham.
The second type of Quranic verse attracts the Islamist.  Islamists focus on intolerant verses, like 5:78: “Curses were pronounced on those among the children of Israel who rejected faith, by the tongue of David and of Jesus….” Intolerance is also found in, for example, 2:65, 2:120, 5:51, 5:60, and the first part of 5:82.
The third type of Quranic verse appeals to the jihadist. In 2:191, 2:193, 8:60, 9:5, and 9:29 violence against non-Muslims is ordered. In 9:29: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, even if they are of the People of the Book, until they pay the protective tax (jizya) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
Violent verses, combined with verses exalting the eternal bliss awaiting the martyrs in paradise, like 2:82, 18:31, 44:52, 44:53, 44:54, and 61:12 inspire suicide bombers and those who indoctrinate them. The combination of the Islamist, Jihadist, and martyr-inducing enables charismatic Islamist politicians to claim the high religious ground, accuse others of heresy, and energize their followers to commit act of violence.
With such a background, no degree of apologists’ rhetoric or propagandist skill can gloss over the intolerant and violent verses. No public relations campaign can turn the intolerant and violent verses into tolerant and peaceful verses. These verses need to be pacified or removed before any “fatwa” and “letter” becomes credible or “dialogue on religion and culture” becomes meaningful. Unless the intolerant and the violent verses are pacified or removed, extremist Islamist leaders will be enabled to exploit this part of Islam in order to claim the higher religious ground, to accuse others of heresy, of apostasy, to energize their political agendas, and to justify their violent acts. That 58 Catholic and Muslim leaders and scholars at Vatican meetings in early November 2008 vowed to jointly combat violence committed in God's name will not be serious unless the Muslim attendees resolve to deal with the intolerant and the violent verses.
The likelihood of Arab religious reform
For an Islamic age of renaissance, the Islamic Shari'a must be modernized. An unchanging Shari’a will continue to manacle Muslims to seventh century laws and dogma of the Arabian Desert. Release from the ulama’s control would mean freeing Muslim minds from the demagoguery of predestination, fate, myth, superstition, and psychotic explanations of the evil eye and the machinations of angels and djinn. Release from the ulama’s hold would lead to instituting modern laws; in particular, personal status laws that would grant women legal rights equal to those of Muslim men and end their treatment as chattel. Scientific thinking, modern laws, and gender equality could enhance economic welfare. Affluence generally provides most people with the incentive to protect what they have achieved and to work harder to acquire more for themselves and their families. Affluence could be a sharp weapon against the growth of radicalism and jihadism. Unless the ulama’s control is ended and Arab rule democratized, the Arab peoples will suffer stagnating poverty, backwardness, and ignorance—the object of ridicule and exploitation by the developed world.
How likely is it that Arab kings or presidents (Lebanon is excluded in this article) might allow Islamic and governance reforms? The answer is “unlikely”. Islam is the best friend of Arab kings and presidents. Islam helps prolong their dictatorships.
The role of Islam in cementing Arab dictatorships
The Quran and the Prophetic Sunna enjoin Muslims to obey the Muslim ruler blindly. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” 4:59 stands behind the culture of blind obedience to authority in Arab societies. The effects of 4:59 transcend all layers of hierarchy—the male over the female, the father over the children and wife (or wives), the teacher over the student, the employer over the employee, the ruler over the ruled, and so forth.
Sunna traditions attributed to the Prophet amplify the Quran. Answering how a Muslim should react to a ruler who does not follow the true guidance, the Prophet is reported to have said, according to Sahih Muslim, the Hadith collection of Muslim Bin Al-Hajjaj (d. 875), “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” Such wording or its equivalent occurs two dozen times in Sahih Muslim. To emphasize the point, the Hadith collections of Abi Dawood (d. 888) and Ibn Maja (d. 886) quote the Prophet as imploring Muslims to hear and obey their ruler, even if he were an Ethiopian slave. The highly revered Al-Bukhari (d. 870) quotes similar sayings.
In addition to Quranic and Hadith injunctions, Arab kings and presidents invoke one thousand year old opinions of certain jurists to legitimize their dictatorships. For example, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) taught that, “any ruler is better than chaos, no matter what the origin of his power” (Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1789-1939, p. 14). Badr Al-Din Bin Jama’a (1241-1333) advocated that the ruler is “the shadow of God on the Earth… The community must accept him whoever he be… The imam can either be chosen or can impose himself by his own power, and in either case, he must be obeyed… If he is deposed by another, the other must equally be obeyed… We are with whoever conquers,” Ibn Jama’a declared (Ibid., 15). Taki Al-Din Bin Taymiyya (1263-1328), the scholar whose teaching influenced the Wahhabis the most, believed that the essence of government “was the power of coercion… The ruler… could demand obedience from his subjects, for even an unjust ruler was better than strife and dissolution of society” (Ibid., 19). Notwithstanding that the opinions of these scholars were a product of the political turmoil of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arab rulers today exploit these opinions all the same. During the life of these scholars the Seljuk Turks dominated the Baghdad Abbasid caliphs, the Fatimid caliphs were entrenched in Egypt against the Baghdad caliphs, the Crusaders had taken Jerusalem in 1099, and the Mongols destroyed Baghdad and killed the caliph in 1258.
The Arab peoples’ embrace of Islam is tight. The Quran describes the Arab race as the “best race evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His Companions, the Quran, and the holy Muslim sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arabic. Arabs feel they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. Additionally, political frustrations at home and from abroad during the past half-century have been drawing most Arabs closer to Islam. An international survey conducted by Gallup International for the BBC World Service program in September 2005, Who Runs Your World, found that in Egypt 87% of Muslims considered that their religion was their most important defining characteristic, giving Egypt the most robust religious identity of any of the sixty-eight countries surveyed.
In their tight embrace of Islam, the Arab masses are obsessed with the belief in predestination, a core belief in the Islamic creed. God’s supremacy is loud and clear throughout the Quran’s 114 chapters. The word Islam means submission to God’s will. Muslims intuitively attribute all good and bad in life to the will of God. Bad rulers are accepted as if they were ordained by God’s will.
Characteristics of Arab rule
Arab rule is a family business. Arab kings and presidents are non-representative rulers. The presidents seized power through military coups d’état a few decades ago. European powers created the monarchies around the time of the First World War. Kings and presidents, unless killed, manage to govern for life. They hand power from father to son through royal successions or uncontested referendums. They exercise absolute powers, banning independent political parties, controlling the media, and dealing cruelly with dissent. Arab rule is non-participatory, mired in tribalism, nepotism, and favoritism. Arab parliaments, if they exist, are rubber-stamp assemblies. Ruling families, surrounded by a narrow coalition of supporters comprise the ruling groups, which violate the law with impunity. Self-enrichment and corruption is a natural consequence of such systems—the glue that keeps the ruling group together.

Arab rulers conveniently tailor Islam to suit the political maneuvering of the moment. In a joint Saudi-Egyptian statement following a visit by the president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the Saudi capital on February 24, 2004, King Fahd and the President declared: “The Western model of democracy does not necessarily fit a region largely driven by Islamic teaching”. In 1992, on appointing his advisory consultative council, the king asserted: “Elections do not fall within the sphere of the Muslim religion” (Roger Hardy, Arabia after the Storm, 1992, p. 12). However, on October 13, 2003, a cabinet meeting chaired by King Fahd decided that municipal elections are Islamic (Arab New newspaper, October 14, 2003). In early 2005, municipal elections were held, but one-half of the 178 councilors were government appointees. Women were barred from running for office and from voting. When the councils were finally announced in December 2005, the government announced that the councils would have largely advisory roles on local affairs.
Arab rulers consciously and deliberately nurture the Islamist tiger enough to threaten potential opponents at home and abroad with its dangers but not enough to threaten the regime's own hold on power.

Islam, a strategy to prolong Arab dictatorial rule
Under such strong urgings to obey the Muslim ruler, it would not be surprising if Arab kings and presidents endeavor to keep their subjects intoxicated with religious dogma. Islam is like an anesthetic, a psychological defense instrument, against political dissent, supplementing the security forces. It is curious that while military dictatorships in Iran, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union were overthrown during the 1980s and 1990s, Arab dictators continue in office, handing power from father to son. Why? Because the Arab masses are symbiotically attached to Islam and such an attachment is constantly nurtured by the rulers and the palace ulama. When the presidents of Egypt and Yemen allowed contested presidential elections on September 7, 2005 and September 20, 2006, respectively, the former gained a fifth term with 88.6% of the votes cast, hardly different from his four previous referendums, and the latter won 77.2% majority, after 28 years of absolute rule. Even if the regime had falsified a big proportion of the election ballots, there would still be left impressive support to the incumbents. Likewise, while Arab monarchs do not bother with referendums, mile-long queues of happy-looking men on every national and religious occasion reflect a degree of genuine support for the kings. There are, however, ineffective minorities among the masses who oppose Arab rulers: Jihadists plus Western influenced professionals. Also, the Shii’te partisans of Ali have had a history of rebellion against the religious and temporal order of Sunni rule since the early Islamic state.
The role of the palace ulama in cementing Arab dictatorships
To fortify their absolute rule, Arab monarchs and presidents alike turn to the palace ulama for help. In mosque sermons, on television and radio shows, in classrooms, newspapers, and magazines the palace ulama warn and threaten the masses with God’s wrath if they fail to uphold their Islamic duty to obey the ruler blindly. In return, cooperative ulama reap wealth and fame from the palace. In Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh, or Sana’a pandering palace ulama energetically preach that blind obedience to king or president (waliy al-amr) is at the core of the Islamic faith. Such preaching, combined with the abject poverty of the Arab masses, their illiteracy, ill health, obsession with religious dogma, and fear of the security forces render the majority of the Arab masses politically quietist.
The ulama have been prominent in Muslim life for centuries. Around two-and-a-half centuries after the death of the Prophet, the ulama laid down the pillars that helped them control Muslim life. They succeeded in enshrining the Sunna (acts and sayings of the Prophet) as a source of law equal to the Quran, although the Quran never made the Sunna a source of law—the Quran contains everything mankind needs to know (6:38, 16:89). The argument that the actions and words of the Prophet reflected the general provisions of the Quran and that the Sunna gave guidance in matters on which the Quran was silent helped this development to evolve and take hold (Albert Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples, Faber and Faber, 1991, p. 67). Equating the Sunna with the Quran made the Prophet “the divinely certified exemplar, whose practice itself had a revelatory status” (Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1. 1977, 328). That the Prophet had reportedly said, “the learned are the heirs of the prophets” (Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples, p. 68), enabled the ulama class to become the natural providers of guidance on every detail of the Prophet’s way of daily life.
Equating the Sunna with the Quran expanded the otherwise narrow coverage of Quranic law considerably—of the 6,236 verses in the Quran, "no more than approximately eighty verses deal with legal topics in the strictest sense of the term" (N. J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, Edinburgh at the University Press, 1971, p. 12). This development handed the ulama wide ranging powers to control Muslim societies. As the teachers, preachers, muftis, judges, and court officials, the ulama became the experts on all and every matter, worldly and spiritual, from personal hygiene, diet, and healthy living to good manners, family affairs, and rituals, etc. This development has created a new industry for the ulama, wrapping Islamic law and dogma tightly around the body of Muslims and handing in the process the ulama and their families political influence, social standing, and lucrative careers. In their success, the ulama enslaved the Muslim mind.
Following the Mongols’ destruction of Baghdad and the Arab caliphate in 1258, the ulama of the Ottoman Empire (1280-1918) took over. After the First World War, while the Turks diagnosed that a rigid Islam was responsible for the decline and ultimate destruction of their empire, the Arab ulama proclaimed that Islam would be their path to greatness. While the Turks were busy separating Islam from their state and secularizing what was left of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab response was to declare Wahhabism as the state religion and way of life in the newly created kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and the establishment earlier, in 1928, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood proclaims Islam as its “creed and state, book and sword, and a way of life”.
The ulama today guard their hold over the faithful zealously. In the national discourse, Muslims are constantly admonished and threatened with God’s eternal damnation if they fail to seek or heed the ulama’s guidance. To appreciate the depth and extent of the control that the ulama exercise over ordinary Muslims, one need not go beyond perusing the religious advice sections of most Arabic newspapers and magazines and watch television shows and radio programs that advise people on the Islamic way of life—is it permissible to have a tattoo, colour one’s hair, thin or darken a woman’s eyebrows, wear a silk tie or a silk garment, wear a gold ring, how to greet a guest, what to say to a person who sneezes, what to eat, how to eat, etc. The ulama’s hold on the Muslim mind is the worst form of slavery.
Non-Arab Muslim culture vs. Arab culture
Non-Arab Muslim Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey, representing more than a half of world Muslims, hold democratic elections and allow women to become prime ministers and presidents. Why such a huge differences with their Arab co-religionists? Is it Arabs’ low-income level and short experience with democracy? Not entirely. Bangladesh, established in 1971 and relatively poor, is democratic and has had more than one female prime minister. Pakistan, established in 1947, also relatively poor, has had periods of democratic governments and a female prime minister more than once. Indonesia, which gained independence in 1945, is relatively poor, democratic and has had a woman president. It may be argued that non-Arab Muslims are less obsessed than the Arab peoples with religious dogma of and that non-Arab environmental and cultural roots allow them to interpret the Quran and the Sunna differently from their Arab co-religionists.
A theory of the genesis of the obedience culture
Before leaving this section, it would be useful to theorize as to why blind obedience to Muslim authority has grown to be so important in Arab and Muslim life.
The foundation upon which the culture of obedience to authority is built could be environmental and political. In the harsh environment of the desert survival requires the efficient use of the desert’s meager resources. Strife wastes clean water and food with dire consequences, including death. Tribal solidarity is a natural strategy for the Bedouin’s survival. Solidarity requires obedience to the authority of the tribal leader, the clan elders, and the family’s head. The Prophet, being a product of desert living, enshrined blind obedience to authority into the Islamic creed.
Monotheism was the instrument of political control, which helped the development and growth of the obedience culture along. In one swoop, monotheism transferred all the powers that had been the preserve of the many gods of the pre-Islamic polytheist Arabs into the hands of the one and only omnipotent Allah. As the Messenger of Allah, the Prophet was divinely inspired. Being divinely inspired, the Prophet’s authority became rooted in the unlimited and absolute powers of Allah. Later, the caliphs and Muslim rulers inherited the Prophet’s all encompassing and absolute authority to control the Muslim community.
Arab rulers’ exploitation of Islam
Two contrasting countries, Saudi Arabia and Syria, reveal how Arab kings and presidents alike exploit Islam to prolong their absolute rule. The two countries serve as prototypes of other Arab countries (except Lebanon). The monarchies generally reflect the Saudi model, whereas the republics generally reflect the Syrian model. The contrasts between the state agendas of Arab monarchies and republics are profound. The monarchs claim divine (sometimes tribal as well), right to rule. The monarchs make Islam inseparable from their rule. The presidents claim, among others, Arab nationalism, and pretend secularism, though they are keen to project an image of Islamic piety in order to exact their subjects’ obedience.
Article 2 of the 1971 constitution, as amended in 1980, 2005, and 2007, makes Islam the religion of the Egyptian state. Article 2, makes Shari’a laws the principal source of legislation. In the 1980 amendment, Shari’a became the principal source of legislation in Egypt for the first time since the country’s first modern constitution was promulgated in 1923. Accordingly, no law in Egypt may be enacted if it contravenes Shari’a rules. On the other hand, Article 5 of the constitution prohibits the formation of religiouspolitical parties.
The contradiction between Articles 2 and 5 keeps the Muslim Brotherhood organization under control. The Brotherhood proclaims Islam as its “creed and state, book and sword, and a way of life.” The Brotherhood’s theme is: “Allah is our objective. The messenger is our leader. Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

While Article 5 denies the Brotherhood the right to become a legitimate political party; thus, precluding it from openly fielding candidates in Egyptian elections, Article 2 allows the Mubarak government to claim the high Islamic ground.
Cairo is home to Al-Azhar Mosque and Al-Azhar University. Founded in 970 by the Fatimids, Al-Azhar is the oldest and most famous Sunni learning institution. Al-Azhar helps cement Egypt’s Islamic identity. Al-Azhar has grown in recent decades from strength to strength. Under the three supposedly “modern” military presidents since the 1953 revolution, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, Al-Azhar has grown from three colleges in 1950 to 72 today.

Together with the 115 years old Fatwa Council for Islamic Interpretations of Laws in Islam and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Al-Azhar Mosque and University constitute Egypt’s official Islamic establishment. The leaderships of the Fatwa Council and Al-Azhar are government appointees. The Ministry of Religious Affairs controls the mosques and supervises their staff. If a cleric deviates from the official line, the Ministry and the security forces ensure that he would not repeat that mistake.
The government’s Islamic credentials may be seen in personal status laws based on seventh century Shari’a law. Shari’a is the antithesis of the liberal laws of the twenty first century. It denies women their basic human rights and reduces their status to that of chattel—a Muslim man can marry four wives, divorce any one of them without giving reason, and two women in inheritance and legal testimony (or bearing witness) equal one man. The government’s Islamic credentials are also seen in orthodox educational curriculum “breeding intolerance and extremism among the new generations” and in a massive growth in the demand for fatwas by Egyptians in recent years. The office of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Head of the Fatwa Council for Islamic Interpretations of Laws in Islam, Sheikh Ali Gumaa, has experienced a great increase in demand for fatwas, to 5,000 per week.

Further, President Mubarak is keen to observe Islamic rituals, to media fanfare; religious events are celebrated as national holidays; and Ramadan changes daily routines. More mosques, greater numbers of worshippers, and more veiled women and bearded men have become common sights in Egypt. The effect of Egypt’s Islamic agenda may be evidenced from the results of an international survey conducted by Gallup International for the BBC World Service program in September 2005, Who Runs Your World. The survey found that in Egypt 87% of Muslims considered that their religion was their most important defining characteristic; giving Egypt the most robust religious identity of any of the sixty-eight countries surveyed.

On public issues, Egyptian ulama issue a bewildering array of fatwas. In October, 2008, the Fatwa Council for Islamic Interpretations of Laws in Islam ruled: "The Will of a deceased Muslim towards building a Church is a sin against God, just as if the deceased left his inheritance towards building a nightclub, a gambling casino, or building a barn for rearing pigs, cats or dogs."

In May 2007, Al-Azhar’s dean of the Hadith faculty relied on certain Prophetic Hadiths, presumably those reported in Sahih Muslim and Sunan Abi Dawood, to opine that as a way to avoid breaking the rule that forbids the genders from being alone together, a woman may breastfeed her male co-worker a total of five times. In Islamic tradition, breast-feeding of a woman’s non-biological child establishes a maternal relation that allows the woman to show her face and hair in the presence of the child when he reaches adulthood.

In February 2007, following a five-minute session, a court sentenced an Internet blogger, Abdel Kareem Soliman, to four years in prison after finding him guilty of insulting Islam (three years) and calling President Mubarak a dictator (one year).
In January 2006, a former dean of the Shari’a faculty Al-Azhar, issued a fatwa declaring that being completely naked during the act of coitus annuls the marriage.
In 1993, Islamist lawyers asked the courts to rule that Cairo University professor Nasr Abu Zeid was an apostate because of his interpretations of the Quran; thus, he should be forced to divorce his Muslim wife. In August 1995, Egypt’s highest court of appeal found that he should be forced to divorce his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Abu Zeid fled Egypt.

Saudi Arabia
Restoring Islam to its “true” tenets was the battle cry of the 1805 and 1902 rebellions by the Al-Saud and Abdulwahhab clans’ alliance against the rule of their Ottoman Hanafite Muslim rulers. Abdulwahhab’s “true” Islam meant making the Hanafite way of life, rituals, and laws more austere, more rigid, and more extreme, in line with the teachings of Ahmad Bin Hanbal (d. 855), the ninth-century founder of the Hanbalite school of jurisprudence. For example, to accord with the Islamic belief in monotheism, tombs in Wahhabi graveyards must be unmarked so that no tomb can become a shrine. Similarly, mosques must be made austere and human representation in statues and paintings banned. Theaters and movies are distraction from the worship of Allah and must not exist. Combining “true” Islam with the sword, and with critical British assistance established in 1932 the kingdom that bears the Al-Sauds’ family name. Today, the sword and the Wahhabi ulama indoctrination have transformed Islam in Saudi Arabia into a seventh century religious cult. The location of Mecca and Medina has helped cement this enterprise.
Over the centuries, Hanbalism failed to attract a large following due to its extremism. Presently, around 2% of world’s Sunnis follow this rite, mainly in Saudi Arabia and among the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to an indeterminate number among the expatriate workers who have held and continue to hold jobs in Saudi Arabia and became indoctrinated in the Wahhabi way of life. The remainder of the world’s one billion Sunni Muslims follows the other three surviving Sunni schools, the Hanafite, the Malikite, and the Shafeite.
The Al-Sauds’ claim to legitimacy does not derive from belonging to the Prophet’s family or tribe, rather, from the opinions of Ibn Taymiyya and others (see above) who advocated that seizing power by force was sufficient to legitimize the authority of the Islamic ruler, notwithstanding, that the Quran takes an unattractive view of kingships (27:34).
To maintain its legitimacy, the Saudi regime allows its palace clerics a free hand. In return, the clerics preach that Islam is the perfect religion, that Wahhabism is the most truthful representation of the “true” Islam and that the Al-Sauds are the most ardent observers of the Wahhabi way of life at home and devoted promoters of Wahhabism abroad. The Prophet reportedly said that Islam would split into 73 sects but only one sect would go to heaven. This has spurred Wahhabi leaders to claim that theirs is the righteous sect and expropriate paradise.
The partnership between Saudi politics and Wahhabism is one of convenience. The Wahhabi ulama certify that the Al-Sauds deserve high marks for their devotion and service to Wahhabism. The ulama are happy to oblige, in return for wealth and influence from the palace. In this partnership, however, the men of God serve as the junior partners—the politicians control the nation’s financial resources and its armed forces. In case of disagreement, the ulama are flexible; should any one hesitate to issue the “right” fatwa, others often find ways to oblige. The Minister for Islamic Affairs made clear the relationship between the Saudi ruler and the Wahhabi establishment. When Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, warned clerics to tone down their sermons in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the minister proclaimed publicly that his duty and the duty of his colleagues were to obey their Al-Sauds masters: “Our duty to our guardians is to listen and obey properly within the limits forced upon us by God” (International Herald Tribune, November 16, 2001).
In a reminder of the ulama’s subordinate position in the partnership, several senior Wahhabi clerics (Salafis) were dismissed from their official positions following a public letter they signed in December 1992, criticizing King Fahd for failing to understand that the clergy had a religious duty to advise all Muslims, including the royals, of their duty to abide by God’s principles. In 1964, when seventy-two princes decided to depose King Saud in favor of his brother Faisal, twelve clerics were on hand to add their approval.
The terms of this alliance were established as far back as the founding years of the Al-Sauds’ dynasty. In 1928, Abdulaziz Al-Saud (known as Ibn Saud) destroyed the Ikhwan leaders and soldiers when they defied his authority. The Ikhwan were instrumental in bringing Ibn Saud to power. They were young tribal men indoctrinated in Wahhabi fervor to the point of martyrdom. They were, it might be said, the predecessors of the jihadists who crashed airplanes into buildings on September 11, 2001. Their insistence, however, on spreading Wahhabism into neighboring countries over the objections of Ibn Saud led to their demise. To exonerate Ibn Saud’s action, leading ulama from the Najd Region (Wahhabism’s stronghold) issued a fatwa allowing Ibn Saud to destroy the Ikhwan.
The king appoints the country’s highest religious office, the grand mufti. The appointment is for four years, renewable at the monarch’s discretion. To display the strength of the political/ religious alliance between the Al-Sauds and the Wahhabi establishment, Saudi kings have met weekly with members of the Council of Senior Ulama ever since King Faisal established the Council in 1971, to media fanfare.
Fusing blind obedience to the ruling family with Islam minimizes the potential for political dissent by Saudi men. Opponents to the Saudi regime are charged with deviation from the “true” Islam, even apostasy: serious charges in a system based on fervent religious dogma. As for Saudi women, the regime has devised a clever strategy in the name of Islam and extremist interpretations of Shari’a law to nullify the potential for political threat from one half of the society. Under this strategy, politically convenient controls, unique to Saudi Arabia, deny women much of their human rights and personal freedoms. At the heart of this strategy is the “male guardian” system, which makes a father, husband, brother, etc. answerable for the misconduct of the woman under his charge. As the guardian over the woman’s conduct and affairs, he must authorize, for example, her getting married, traveling on her own, undergoing a medical procedure, engaging in a business venture, etc.
For a glimpse at the world in which Saudi women must exist, the heartrending tragedy that struck a girls’ school in Mecca on March 11, 2002 is apt. Fourteen girls died and dozens were injured in a fire at their school. The religious police prevented the girls from escaping because they were not draped in the black head-to-toe covering. The police also prevented the male rescuers from entering the school because it would have violated segregation of the sexes rules.
Such conduct is not surprising given a Wahhabi national discourse dominated by fatwas, opinions, rhetoric, and court actions like the following:
In November 2005, a Saudi court sentenced a teacher, Mohammed Al-Harbi, to 750 lashes and forty months in prison for promoting “dubious ideologies” and “preventing students from going to wash for prayer.”

In November, 2006, the imam of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, Dr. A.R. Al-Sudais, preached that the drought that hit Saudi Arabia in the winter of 2006 was caused by the proliferation of sin; specifically, dealing in usury, bribery, lying, dishonesty, and violating God’s rules (Al-Watan Newspaper, November 14, 2006).
On March 14, 2008, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al-Barrak, a leading Saudi cleric, issued a fatwa that two Saudi writers should be tried for apostasy for their “heretical articles” and put to death if they do not repent. Barrak was responding to recent articles in Al-Riyadh newspaper that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that Christians and Jews should be considered unbelievers.
On December 28, 2009, Saudi royal court adviser, Sheikh Abdulmohsen Al-Abaikan, warned Muslims against celebrating New Year's Eve, and Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ma'abi of the Ministry of Justice warned Saudi students abroad against taking part in such celebrations.
On February 26, 2010, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak opined that those who promote heresies like the mixing of men and women in the workplace or in educational institutions should be put to death.

Additionally, Wahhabi indoctrination extends to the estimated 70–80 million expatriate workers who had worked in Saudi Arabia during the past 35 years or continue to work there. If only a small proportion embraced Wahhabism, hundreds of thousands could be spreading the Wahhabi creed around. Wahhabi clerics spent an estimated $75 billion over the past 25 years proselytizing and radicalizing clerics, preachers, and foot soldiers from Egypt, Lebanon, Gaza, and Somalia to Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The Wahhabi message is also heard worldwide through Saudi owned or controlled satellite television stations, Internet sites, newspapers, and magazines.
Just as the sword helped bring the Al-Sauds to power in Saudi Arabia, the tank brought the Asad family to power in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Syria have difficulty relating with one another. While the Al-Sauds’ legitimating agenda has been the promotion of Wahhabism, Syria’s legitimating agenda has been the promotion of Arab nationalism and socialism and pretending to be secularist. The differences in the state agendas of the two countries produced different symbolisms and supporting groups.
Saudi rulers denounce Arab nationalism, socialism, and Westernization as atheistic innovations. Sheikh Abdulaziz Bin Baz, Saudi Arabia’s former grand mufti (1993-1999), the country’s highest religious authority and chairman of the committee of senior ulama, called Arab nationalism an atheist Jahiliyya (the pre-Islamic age of darkness). Ibn Baz described nationalism as “a movement of ignorance whose main purpose is to fight Islam and destroy its teachings and rules.” (Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 190). As for the Arab military-ruled republics that since the 1950s have typically adopted nationalism as a basis for Arab unity and as a political objective, Ibn Baz branded them “the enemies of Islam” (Ibid). Saudi history textbooks highlight that Arab nationalism is “European in origin, Jewish in motivation . . . [and] represented as a conspiracy promoted by the West and Zionism to undermine the unity of Muslims” (Ibid. p. 191).
Notwithstanding the differences in their legitimating agendas, a common denominator between Arab monarchies and military republics, however, is their exploitation of Islam, though in varying degrees.
The development of secularism in the Middle East
Turkey, which ruled most of the Arab world for four centuries (1517-1918), was the first Muslim country to officially separate religion from the state following the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) blamed Islam’s rigidity and resistance to innovation during the age of European Reformation, Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution for the demise of the Turkish Empire. The Ottoman ulama objected to modernization. The Prophet reportedly said, according to Abi Dawood and Ibn Majah’s Hadith collections: “Beware of innovation, for every innovation is heresy, and every heresy leads to the wrong path”, and according to Al-Bukhari: “The most evil of all matters are those that get modernized.” Such an attitude delayed the introduction of, for example, the all-important printing press into the life of the Ottomans. Three centuries after the printing press was introduced in Europe, Ottoman ulama were still resisting printing in Arabic and Turkish as an undesirable innovation. The long delay in introducing the printing press was symptomatic of the rigidity that slowed Ottoman progress at a time when Europe was charging ahead with great inventions, especially in the military field.
The Arab generals are no Kemal Ataturk
By comparison with the Ataturk reforms, Arab military presidents’ reforms have been tentative. The presidents, like their Arab royal counterparts, are unwilling to give up their exploitation of Islam. They see Islam as an instrument to keep them in power, notwithstanding its being an impediment to modern progress. The Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) of the United Nations Development Program found that over the past twenty years growth in per capita income in Arab countries was the lowest in the world except in Sub-Saharan Africa. While this poor performance can be attributed to many factors, the ulama teaching must be high among them.
Although, Syria does not focus on Islam in the national discourse, the government’s commitment to secularization is insincere. Indeed, the Syrian constitution has made Islam the religion of the president. The constitution enshrined Islam as “a main source” of legislation. Also, Shari’a laws and courts continue to regulate personal status, family, and inheritance affairs (non-Muslims follow their own spiritual courts) almost fifty years after the supposedly “secular” Baath Party ruled Syria. Shari’a laws deny women many legal rights compared with Muslim men. Shari’a laws reduce women to chattel; with all the infringements that such laws impinge on women’s human rights. Despite maintaining seventh century Shari’a personal status laws, Syria, nonetheless, propagates in the national discourse and abroad an image of modernity and equality between men and women. In May 2009, the Syrian government made public a proposed draft new personal status law, which, like the existing law, maintains Shari’a rules, even as Syria, paradoxically, tries to propagate an image of gender equality and modernity. While Syria’s first lady, Mrs. Asma Asad, imparts a liberal sophisticated image and the country’s well educated and cultured Vice President, Dr. Najah Al-Attar, conveys professionalism, the weight of the testimony of these two ladies in a Syrian Shari’a court of law will continue under the new proposed law to equal the weight of the testimony of one man, who might be an illiterate tramp.
The Syrian president, an Alawite, is careful to observe prayers and rituals in public on Islamic religious occasions. Sunni Muslims (about 70% of Syrians) especially orthodox Sunnis, consider the Alawites non-Muslim heretics. So, to confirm that an Alawite can legitimately be called a Muslim, thus removing a religious barrier to his presidency, President Hafiz Asad (1971-2000) appealed in 1973 to the imam Musa Al-Sadr, an influential Shi’ite cleric and head of the Higher Shi’ite Council in Lebanon, to issue a fatwa that the Alawites are indeed a community of Shi’ite Islam.” (Patrick Seale, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p. 173.)
In order to gain the obedience of the Sunni masses, Syria’s political leadership projects an image of Islamic piety and is generous with its Sunni palace ulama. The Sunni palace ulama establishment panders to the Asad dynasty in return for financial and career benefits. Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaro, for example, Syria’s late mufti (head of Syria’s system of Shari’a law) found it attractive to hold that position for more than forty years until his death in 2004. The mufti had propounded the view publicly that it is the duty of Muslims to obey their Muslim rulers blindly. In a November 2004 television interview on a widely viewed Arabic satellite television program (Abu Dhabi Television, Al-Madar News, December 14, 2004) Ahmad Kaftaro’s son, Sheikh Salah Eddin Kaftaro, forcefully advocated the same view.
Such a strategy is all the more important in Syria because, until Hafiz Asad seized control in 1971, every civilian and military president of Syria had been a Sunni. Indeed, Sunnis dominated the economic and political life in Syria for centuries. Between 1977 and 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood wreaked havoc against the Asad regime. In 1982, Mr. Asad’s army decimated the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, with great loss of life.
Other Arab countries, including the military ruled republics, go beyond Syria in emphasizing Islam: They declare Islam to be not only the religion of the ruler but also to be the religion of the state. Further, in all Arab countries, except Tunisia, Shari’a laws govern personal status affairs, which reduce Muslim women to chattel. As if to demonstrate his good Islamic credentials, Saddam Hussein, one of the most anti-Islamists among Arab dictators before his removal in 2003 by the American occupation of Iraq, added the words Allahu Akbar (meaning God is Great) to the Iraqi flag in 1991.
The success of the Ataturk reforms compared with the failure of Arab generals’ reforms is largely due to the difference in the leadership qualities between Kemal Ataturk and Arab generals. Kemal Ataturk was a captivating leader of towering personality, a war hero of the battle of Gallipoli (1915-1916), and a giant of a commander with impeccable credentials. Kemal Ataturk earned the trust and the affection of his people. Kemal Ataturk energized the Turkish masses with such optimism and high expectations that they marched behind him towards a world of different culture, mind set, and way of life. Between 1924 and 1935, the Ataturk revolution implemented a program of fundamental changes the likes of which the Islamic world has never seen before or since: The Islamic caliphate was ended, Shari’a laws and courts were abolished—the Swiss civil code and the Italian penal code were adopted instead, the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet, Western numerals, calendar, weights, measures, a European style hat, Sunday as the day of rest, and the enfranchisement of women were embraced.
By contrast, Arab presidents were mostly middle ranking officers with little or no special achievements to their name when they took over or ever since. Arab presidents lack the leadership qualities needed to deal with the formidable challenge of separating Islam from the Arab state. Arab presidents fear that any attempt at separating Islam from the state would be viewed by the ulama and the masses as if the regime is abandoning Islam altogether, a view that would most likely spur the ulama and the masses to release themselves from the duty to obey a reforming ruler. In such a case, Islam would be transformed from being an asset in the hands of the ruler into an enemy, a risk no Arab ruler has thus far been willing to face, except for former President Burgeiba of Tunisia. Unless the reforming Arab ruler would be of the Kemal Ataturk ilk, in which case the masses would follow him to the ends of the earth, the reforming Arab ruler would be doomed. So, under such conditions, Arab presidents take the easy road—they subordinate ideology to pragmatism, even if such a strategy would cause their people to be trapped in a world of stagnating poverty.

Arab countries may be divided into three categories according to the intensity of their Islamic agenda: The first category covers Saudi Arabia, to be labeled Islamist. The second category covers the rest of Arab monarchies, to be labeled Islamic. The third category covers Arab republics, to be labeled as either quasi-secular or quasi-Islamic.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria along with other governments in Arab countries use Islam as one of their main pillars for maintaining power. No matter what shortcomings exist in the society, no matter how slow the pace of development, no matter how low living standards, and no matter how often the government fails, the regimes remain in power.
There are, of course, risks in this use of Islam to legitimize authority by promoting a traditional interpretation of that religion. One is that the country’s society is more stagnant and its progress even slower. Yet the regimes are ready to accept this cost. The other is that the very same strategy helps legitimize Islamist movements that want to undermine and overthrow the existing government. The governments try to manage this problem by using ulama supportive of the status quo to issue definitions of Islam in line with the regime’s interests. They also run campaigns to distinguish between the “proper” pro-government Islam and “mistaken” Islamist interpretations.
Western politicians , academics, and media are not likely to seriously help the process of Arab religious and political reforms along. Political correctness in Western societies steeped in secularism inhibits most Westerners from appreciating the dangers of political Islam. Many Western leaders have personal financial interest in maintaining cozy connections to Arab ruling families, especially in Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbors. Former American government officials, for example, who act for the Al-Sauds and the other GCC leaders in return for hefty fees as lawyers, advisers, consultants, investment managers, business partners, etc... would not want their bounty to disappear. The press barons and business executives want to, additionally, access GCC markets. That Saudi Arabia, the country which produced 15 of the 19 terrorists on 9/11, is depicted as a victim of terrorism, not the breeder of terrorism today is breathtaking. Such a distortion attests to the skill and the power of the Saudi purse.
In sum, Arab regimes are riding a tiger, which provides them with more benefits than costs but which may someday turn against them and devour them.