Welcome to Daringopinion.com
The Website of Elie Elhadj
To Prolong their Dictatorships, Arab Rulers Resort to
the Islamic Creed



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 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 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 the Script 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 or of positive consequence 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, Shari'a laws must be modernized. An unchanging Shari’a will keep seventh century laws and dogma of the Arabian Desert in control. Release from the ulama’s control would mean freeing people 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 men. 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 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. They exploit Islam in order to prolong their dictatorships.

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.

The Arab masses are obsessed with the belief in predestination. God’s supremacy is loud and clear throughout the Quran’s 114 chapters. The word Islam means submission to God’s will. All good and bad in life is attributed 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 before and 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 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 conditions 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 for the first time ever in Saudi Arabia, and the last since that time, 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.


Under such strong urgings to obey the ruler, it would not be surprising if Arab kings and presidents endeavour to keep their subjects under the influence of religious dogma, a psychological defence instrument against political dissent, supplementing the security forces. It is curious that while military dictatorships in 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. 

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 class has been prominent for centuries. Around two-and-a-half centuries after the death of the Prophet, the ulama laid down the pillars that helped them control the daily lives of their followers. 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). 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 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 society. 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 their followers and handing in the process the ulama and their families political influence, social standing, and lucrative careers. In their success, the ulama enslaved their congregations.

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 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 people, 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 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 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. 

A Theory of the Genesis of the Culture of Blind Obedience to Muslim Authority

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 models; that of Saudi Arabia, on one hand, and Syria and Egypt, on the other, reveal how Arab kings and presidents alike exploit Islam to prolong their absolute rule. These countries serve as prototypes of other Arab countries (except Lebanon). The monarchies generally reflect the Saudi model, whereas the republics generally reflect the Syrian and Egyptian 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 divine 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. On the other hand, Article 5 of the constitution prohibits the formation of religious political 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.” 
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—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 the educational curriculum and in a massive growth in the demand for fatwas by Egyptians, to 5,000 per week. 
For example, 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 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.

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 worshipers, 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.


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.

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 more than one billion Sunni Muslims follows the other three surviving Sunni schools, the Hanafite, the Malikite, and the Shafeite.

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.

The Al-Sauds’ claim to legitimacy does not derive from belonging to the Prophet’s family or tribe, rather, from the opinions of age-old Islamic scholars 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 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, 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, 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. 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 100 million expatriate workers who had worked in Saudi Arabia or continue to work there. If only a small proportion embraced Wahhabism, thousands could be spreading the Wahhabi creed around. Wahhabi clerics spent billion of dollars proselytizing and radicalizing clerics, preachers, and foot soldiers from Egypt, Lebanon, Gaza, and Somalia to Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The Wahhabi message is heard worldwide through Saudi owned or controlled satellite television stations, Internet sites, newspapers, and magazines.


Syria’s legitimating agenda is the promotion of Arab nationalism and socialism. The ruling Ba’th Party’s constitution enshrines Arab unity, freedom, and socialism as its holy trinity. There is no reference to Islam or to any other religion in the Ba’th Party’s constitution.

Presidents Hafiz al-Asad 
(1971-2000) and his son Bashar (2000-) belong to Syria’s Alawite minority sect (about 10 percent of the population). Generally, Sunni Muslims (about 75 percent of Syria’s population) regard the Alawites as non-Muslim heretics. Centuries of Sunni persecution left deep scars on the collective memory of the Alawite people. 

Under such conditions, instead of wading in the muddy waters of Shari’a reform, a more rewarding strategy for the Asad family has been to uphold the influence of Islam and appoint as many Sunnis as possible to high governmental positions–though, not in the most elite security forces. Such an approach would pacify the majority of Sunnis and prolong the Asads’ hold on power.
Over the half century since the supposedly “secular” Ba’th Party seized power, the Asad dynasty’s use of Islam has reached remarkable heights. Four main strategies manifest the regime’s insincerity towards its “secular” roots.

The first strategy is to preserve the influence of Islam. The constitution of 1973, promulgated during the reign of Hafiz Asad. Article 3.2 enshrines Islam as “a main source” of legislation.Article 3.1 makes Islam the necessary religion of the president. Having failed to abolish articles 3.1 and 3.2, and to remove a barrier to his presidency, Hafiz Asad appealed in 1973 to the imam Musa al-Sadr, an influential cleric and head of the Higher Shi’i Council in Lebanon, to issue a fatwa that the Alawites are a community of Shi’i Islam, which the imam duly issued. 

The second strategy is to safeguard the country’s Shari’a laws and courts in personal status, family, and inheritance affairs (non-Muslims follow their own religious courts). While the president's wife, Asma, imparts a liberal image and the country’s well-educated and cultured Vice President, Najah al-Attar, conveys professionalism, the weight of the testimony of these two ladies in a Syrian Shari’a court of law is equal to the weight of the testimony of one man, whoever he might be. 

The third strategy is to flaunt the regime’s Islamic image on religious occasions. The president is careful to attend prayer in Damascus’ famous Umayyad Mosque on Islamic feasts to media fanfare. Religious events are national holidays. During the month of Ramadan, the working hours of government and private offices are reduced and altered. The president celebrates the breaking of the fast with different civic groups at the presidential palace. Special programming on government radio and television stations takes over the airwaves. More mosques, bigger congregations, and more veiled women than ever before have become the order of the day in Syrian cities and universities. The founding fathers of the strongly secular Ba’th Party must be turning in their graves.

In addition to maintaining the influence of Islam at home, the Asad regime supports Shi’i Hizballah in Lebanon, and theocratic Iran. Such a strategy, not only demonstrates the regime’s supposed commitment to Islamic causes, but also politicizes Islam. Wrapping Islam around Arab nationalism and the regime’s regional conflicts creates a siege mentality, transforms external threats into a holy jihad, mobilizes the masses behind the regime, and justifies the retention of the state of emergency in effect since the mid-1960s. 
The state of emergency allows imprisoning opponents indefinitely without trial and eliminating the advocates of genuine reforms on charges of treachery in the middle of “battle.” A steady diet of exaggerated or invented victories provides the populace with psychic rewards.

These strategies help isolate Syria’s Islamists, particularly the Sunni organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Between 1977 and 1982, the Brotherhood wreaked havoc in a bid to remove the Alawite rule. In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood was decimated in the city of Hama. For three weeks, 12,000 or more soldiers destroyed Hama practically over the heads of its inhabitants. Estimates of the number killed range between 3,000 (according to government sympathizers) and 20,000 or more (according to government critics), plus an untold number of injured. For eight years since March 2011, the revolution against Asad's minority rule has killed and maimed two million citizens, possibly more, displaced twelve million in Syria and neighbouring countries, and demolished much of the country's cities, towns, and villages.

The Ministry of Islamic affairs (Awqaf), together with the security forces ensure that the ulama class follows the official line. Violators risk severe penalties. Sunni palace ulama support the regime in return for lucrative careers and wealth. 
The palace clerics promote the culture of obedience to the Muslim ruler, though most Sunnis consider the Alawite sect as hereticalThe late Shaykh Ahmad Kaftaro, for example, the government-appointed grand mufti (highest Sunni religious office) found it attractive to hold this high position for more than 40 years until his death in September 2004.  


These three and 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 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.

These efforts are not altogether effective. In sum, the regimes are riding a tiger, which provides them with more benefits than costs but which may someday turn against them and devour them.


 Follow me on Twitter