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Saudi Arabia

Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Is Qatar training Egyptian fighters in Idlib, Syria?

Qatar’s global media outlet, Aljazeera, reported that 200 Egyptian military officers and experts are now in Syria. The report, is based on a Lebanese source, came days after the Egyptian president, Abdulfattah al-Sisi, in an interview to Portuguese media, said that he supported the Syrian national army in its war on terrorists. This seemingly new position has angered the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who back the Syrian opposition fighters and have been pushing for the removal of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Some sources, however, have also revealed that Qatar is training Egyptian Islamists in Idlib, Syria. This revelation could explain the increased collaboration between the Syrian and Egyptian governments. Egypt, like Syria, has been battling Salafi and other Islamist militants. If these elements are being trained in Syria and supported by Qatar, Egypt will be forced to collaborate with the Syrian and Libyan governments who are facing the same threats. 
Fath al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra front, which is backed by Qatar, controls Idlib, and has released multiple videos showing individuals engaged in war games, with indication that some of these fighters are not training for the war in Syria, which could support the assertion that Idlib is turning into training grounds for fighters from other countries, including Egypt, China, Tunisia, France, and Algeria.
It should be noted also that when al-Julani, the leader of al-Nusra, announced the name change of his group’s name into Jabhat Fath al-Sham, sitting next to him was a known Egyptian Salafist, another reason for Egypt to be concerned about the role of Qatar in supporting groups that might pose a security threat to Egypt.
 al-Julani, announcing the name change of al-Nusra Front
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Why are Western governments angered by those who compare the military campaigns in Mosul and Aleppo?

Why are Western governments angered by those who compare the military campaigns in Mosul and Aleppo?


Charred bodies of ISIL fighters suggest abuse
Over the last weekend of the month of November, Russian military leaders reacted to Western criticism of Russia’s support to the Syrian government to retake eastern Aleppo from armed groups. They countered by accusing the U.S. and its allies of double standard. They suggested, essentially, that what the Syrian government is doing in Aleppo is not any different from what the Iraqi government is doing in Mosul. On Monday November 1, the State Department “slammed Moscow’s comparison”, calling it “ludicrous” and “insulting.” Curiously, it was actually a Western media outlet, The Independent (see below), from UK, that first made the comparison on October 21, in one of its lead stories, Compare the coverage of Mosul and East Aleppo and it tells you a lot about the propaganda we consume.
Explaining the reasons the U.S. administration felt that such a comparison is insulting, State Department spokesman John Kirby said: 

“I mean, in Aleppo you’ve got the regime laying siege to a city with the support of their biggest backer, Russia. In Mosul you have an entire coalition of some 66 nations who have planned for months, so with the vast support and legitimacy of the international community, to retake a city from Daesh over a period of months in support of Iraqi Security Forces.”

It must be noted that, anticipating Western criticism, Russia had suspended its airstrikes on the city of Aleppo weeks before the Syrian government forces and their allies started their operation in east Aleppo. The Russian military insisted that it had halted its airstrikes in early October, “to allow civilians to leave the city through six humanitarian corridors established by the Syrian government.”
Resisting the comparison is purely political as it serves no real purpose in terms of ending the tragedy the Syrian and Iraqi peoples have endured in the last five years. Those who reject the comparison are also behind the selective use of violent armed groups to achieve political goals. There is no doubt that both the Iraqi and Syrian peoples are subjected to horrific conditions, most of which are not of their own doing. Their suffering is the direct outcome of activities by regional and global powers who are using destabilizing these two countries to pursue geopolitical and economic interests.
The comparison is sound, and it should unite all thse countries who claim concern for the Syrian people to focus on ending this crisis. The comparison of the situations in Mosul and Aleppo has merits. Here is why.
Aleppo                                                              ||     Mosul
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* Used to be the largest city in Syria                 || * Used to be the second largest city in Iraq
* Inhabited by predominantly Sunni Muslims   || * Inhabited by predominantly Sunni Muslims
* Taken over by predominantly Salafi militants || * Taken over by predominantly Salafi militants
* Being recaptured by government forces and    || *Being recaptured by government forces and  
allies including,                                                   || allies including,
# Syrian military units                                          || # Iraq military units
# Syrian security and police units                         || # Iraq security and police units
# Shia paramilitary units                                        || # Shia paramilitary units
# Palestinian paramilitary units                              || # Turkman paramilitary units
# Tribal paramilitary units                                     || # Tribal paramilitary units
# Kurdish paramilitary units                                   || # Kurdish paramilitary units
# Foreign governments’ military units                    || # Foreign governments’ military units
(authorized by the UN recognized Syrian            || (authorized by the UN Iraqi government)
Government                                                          ||
* Nusra and its allied control 225,000 civilians      || * ISIL controls 1,200,00 civilians in the city
in the city of Aleppo                                             || of Mosul
* US coalition not authorized by Syrian                || * US coalition authorized by the Iraqi government
government                                                           || but Russia not authorized by Iraqi government
* Civilians used as human shields by armed group || * Civilians used as human shields by ISIL
* Civilians are killed in the operation                      || * Civilians are killed in the operation    
* All sides might have violated international laws || * All sides might have violated international laws
governing armed conflicts                                     || governing armed conflicts
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The only difference between the Iraqi and Syrian situations is that, while there is a consensus among most world governments to support the Iraqi government retake its cities from terrorists, a handful of governments including current U.S. administration, the French government, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, have committed themselves to overthrowing Bashar Assad by any means necessary, including the use of al-Qaeda derivatives to achieve that main objective. It is this political goal, and nothing else, that is prolonging the carnage in Syria, which is, now, having some affect on neighboring countries.
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Headlines reacting to comparing Mosul to Aleppo:

Saudi Mufti used ISIL’s favorite weapon, takfir, to declare Iranians non-Muslim

Saudi Mufti used ISIL’s favorite weapon, takfir, to declare Iranians non-Muslim

Proving the point raised by critics of Saudi religious figures who often use religion to silence dissenters, the Grand Mufti of the kingdom took a page from ISIL’s book and issued a fatwa declaring all Iranians kuffar (non-Muslim) after the leader of that country accused the rulers of the kingdom of negligence when managing Hajj. More than 450 Iranian pilgrims died last year-2015, among thousands more mostly from Africa and Asian countries, and no credible investigation was conducted to reassure pilgrims and punish those found guilty of negligence. The Kingdom established a committee headed by the crown prince, who is also the interior minister, the institution that is overseeing Hajj. In a sense, the rulers established an investigative committee headed by the same person accused of incompetence. Even so, the committee, still, has not published its findings.
Instead of addressing the issue, the Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, used religion and issued the exclusion decree, takfir, labeling Iranians “non-Muslim, majus, who worship fire.”

Perhaps realizing the gravity of this practice, the kingdom announced that the Mufti will not be giving the sermon in the pilgrimage this year, a first in more than 30 years.

Will hubris bring the end of the Saudi regime?

Will hubris bring the end of the Saudi regime?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*


Saudi Arabia’s bizarre behavior was on display, again, during the last two weeks. The recent actions reveal how Saudi Arabia’ rulers leverage the kingdom’s oil-generated wealth, Wahhabism, and religious sites and institutions to exert unmatched control in world politics–unmatched even by the superpowers of today.
Here is the chain of events.
On Thursday, June 2, the United Nations released its blacklist of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights during conflict. In it, Saudi Arabia–and its coalition partners but mainly Saudi Arabia–was found responsible for “killing and maiming children in Yemen.” The report concluded that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia “was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries last year, killing 510 and wounding 667… The coalition carried out half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

Saudi Arabia’s PR and diplomatic missions’ machines shifted into overdrive. First, as reported by several news outlets, its top diplomats informed UN officials that unless Saudi Arabia is removed from the list, the kingdom will stop funding all UN agencies. Second, and to facilitate its break with the UN, the rulers summoned Wahhabi religious clerics to meet and issue a fatwa declaring the UN “anti-Muslim”, thereby justifying the cutting of aid and dues to the UN. Third, the rulers called on members of its coalitions–the Arab coalition supporting its war on Yemen and the Islamic coalition supporting its alleged anti-terrorism efforts–to pressure the UN to remove the kingdom from its blacklist. Within a week, the UN announced that it was removing Saudi Arabia and its war on Yemen coalition partners from the list pending a joint investigation.

Have the rulers of Saudi Arabia achieved anything from this show of power and influence? Yes, they have achieved this: a clear demonstration that money offers rich individuals and nations immense power to obfuscate the truth. At what cost? The Saudi rulers multiplied their losses rather than curtail them.

1. Once on the list, the image of the kingdom has been irreversibly tarnished. By forcing the UN, through reported threats and enticements, to remove it from the blacklist, it added new damage: it exposed the kingdom’s rulers as bullies, arrogant, and thugs who resort to blackmail to achieve political goals.

2. When they called on their religious figures to issue a fatwa against the UN, they solidified the perception and the reality of their use of Islamic institutions in service of political masters, not the other way around as suggested by the titles the rulers choose for themselves: Servants of the Two Noble Sanctuaries.

3. The pressure the Saudi rulers exerted on their already reluctant coalition partners will gradually alienate those countries who find other reliable partners who will not use them the way the Saudi rulers do. Once that happens, the government of Saudi Arabia will be on a path to being isolated.

4. The Saudi rulers’ reliance on religious institutions as a convenience kiosk of fatwas-on-demand exposes the rulers’ insidious campaign to define Sunni Islam through a Wahhabi filter.

The events unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring have transformed Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in ways they hardly imagined. First, Qatari satellite TV channel, Aljazeera, which reserved the right to criticize all Arab governments except those ruling the CCG member states, was exposed as a sectarian political tool in the hands of the ruling elite. Second, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive interference in the affairs of Muslim countries through bribes and threats was exposed. Some of the recently revealed actions show the extent of their otherwise secret dealings:  giving millions to Malaysian politicians, supporting Sunni tribes in Iraq to remove the elected prime minister—Nouri al-Maliki, arming Salafi fighters in Syria to overthrow the Syrian government, bombing Yemen to extend the rule of an interim president, offering refuge to a Tunisian dictator wanted for murder and embezzlement, supporting Egyptian military rulers who removed a democratically elected president, blocking the selection of a president in Lebanon, reneging on a gift to Lebanese military, and supporting Morocco to punish Algeria for challenging its control over the Arab League.

This problem with the UN report is indeed all bad news for the Saudi rulers. But it ought to be good news for the Muslim peoples. It exposes the Saudi rulers’ use and abuse of religious institutions and their perversion of Islam to preserve their corrupt, clannish control over sites revered by billions of Muslims around the world. This exposure is a necessary step for dealing with one of Saudi Arabia’s most dangerous brainchild: al-Qaeda and its derivatives. By examining the Saudi use of wealth and religious institutions, Sunni Muslim thinkers will begin to address the origins of ISIL’s corrupted interpretation of Islam and act against its genocidal agenda that is rooted in Saudi Wahhabism.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Saudi Arabia is a not great American ally; it is a liability

Saudi Arabia is a not great American ally; it is a liability

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
At the same time President Obama was meeting with the rulers of the GCC member states, Foreign Policy magazine published an article by Michael Pregent arguing that “Saudi Arabia is a great American ally.” Responding to the increased number of critics of Saudi Arabia, the author ignored all the facts and relied instead on two logically flawed arguments: (1) Iran is worse than Saudi Arabia, and, (2) Saudi Arabia has long been at war with al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia, too, used these two specious arguments to cajole its Western economic partners into ignoring its appalling human rights record, its role in the perversion of Islam, its bulling of poor Arab and Muslim countries, and its support for brutal authoritarian regimes in Islamic societies.
Great allies are not default allies. Yet, that is exactly the author’s argument: Saudi Arabia is great ally because Iran will make a very bad one, as if Iran and the U.S. are actually wanting to be allies. Given the U.S.’s publicly stated commitment to human rights norms, representative governance, and rule of law, it is in the interest of the American people and their administrations to distance themselves from all regimes that do not share a commitment to these principles.
The author repeated Saudi Arabia’s claim that it has its own war on “al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates” and therefore, it is a reliable ally. All evidence point to the fact that Saudi Arabia has used al-Qaeda and its derivatives as strategic tools abroad. The Saudi rulers had targeted al-Qaeda members only when they threatened the rulers’ hold on power at home. The origins and ideology of al-Qaeda and its derivatives also show the undeniable connection to Saudi Arabia.

1. al-Qaeda (and its derivatives) is exclusively a Saudi brainchild. Ideologically, members of al-Qaeda, ISIL, al-Nusra, and Jaish al-Islam follow Wahhabism. Wahhabism, the radicalized, politicized, and now weaponized version of previously docile Salafism, is exclusively a Saudi creation. With that being that case, not just fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 attackers were Saudi, all nineteen attackers, and their spiritual leader–Bin Laden, were Wahhabi Salafists with roots in Saudi Arabia. If if we were to give the Saudi rulers the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are, now, fighting al-Qaeda, one would still think that they must. After all, they are responsible for al-Qaeda’s existence in the first place.
2. Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror laws are not enacted to combat Wahhabi terrorism. They are often used to persecute and prosecute human rights activists, bloggers, and anyone who criticizes the rulers of GCC member states. Raif Badai is not a terrorist. Yet he was sentenced to a 10 year prison term and 1000 public lashes. Former al-Qaeda members are sent to rehabilitation centers, instead.
3. The strange military coalitions the King’s son, the inexperienced deputy Crown Prince, and head of the Defense Forces, Mohammed Ibn Slaman, announced thus far are meant to provide the regime with a “Sunni” cover to confront Iran and other governments that resist or oppose Saudi influence. The coalition of ten states provided cover for the Saudi regime to launch its brutal war on Yemen, killing thousands of civilians thus far, as documented by NGOs. Similarly, the announced 34 nation Sunni military coalition is clearly made to confront the Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq not to fight al-Qaeda and its derivatives. When the U.S. anti-ISIL coalition denied them ground presence in those countries, the coalition showed off Saudi military hardware instead during war games. The Saudis have never been serious about confronting al-Qaeda and all evidence points the fact that the rulers are in fact using these Wahhabi fighters as Special Forces outside the kingdom’s borders.
3.1. Before the start of the Saudi war on Yemen, al-Qaeda fighters there were under pressure from U.S. drones attacks. ISIL’s leaders complained that the group’s supporters in Yemen failed to establish a foothold for the “caliphate” in that country. Now, both ISIL and al-Qaeda fighters control numerous towns and provinces from which the Yemeni military and Houthi fighters retreated due to heavy Saudi bombardment. Many of the neighborhoods in Aden, supposedly the temporary seat of the pro-Saudi Yemeni government (led by Hadi), are now controlled by al-Qaeda and its derivatives.
3.2. In Syria and Iraq, the Saudi government did not take a significant part in the military operations targeting ISIL, al-Nusra, and other al-Qaeda derivatives. In fact, the Saudis facilitated the transfer of fighters who belonged to UN designated terror organizations to other equaled violent, genocidal groups like Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham and supplied them with more weapons.
3.3. The Saudi rulers, like the AKP leaders in Turkey, continue to insist that, as long as Shia or pro-Shia governments are in power in Iraq and Syria, they will continue to tolerate al-Qaeda and its derivatives and use them as foot soldiers to change those regimes. The Saudi and Qatari intervention in Libya, which is now a failed stated governed by at least three different “governments”, ought to caution all those who want to do the same in Syria.
4. The rulers of Saudi Arabia are overstating the Iranian threat for a number of reasons. First, as adherents to puritan Wahhabism which sees Shia as a deviant sect, the mere existence of a Shia Iran is unacceptable—regardless of Iran being an actual threat or not. Second, the Saudi Arabian rulers want to mask their own problems by overstating imagined outside threats–Iran or some other invented one. In reality, it is Saudi Arabia that is meddling in the affairs of other countries.
It is Saudi Arabia that is now bombing Yemen. It is Saudi Arabia that is offering protection to Ben Ali who is wanted in Tunisia for killing protesters and corruption charges. It is Saudi Arabia that had sent its military to crush a peaceful protest movement in Bahrain. It is Saudi Arabia that is arming rebels in Syria. It is Saudi Arabia that stood by Mubarak when his regime attempted to put down the rebellion. It is Saudi Arabia that bough influence by paying off politicians in Malaysia. It is Saudi Arabia that first donated to Lebanon $4 billion to upgrade that country’s military to combat the Wahhabi threat then ungifted it when the Lebanese foreign minister refused to support Saudi-drafted resolutions in the Arab League. It is Saudi Arabia that is punishing Algeria for opposing its hegemony on the Arab League. It is in Saudi Arabia where nearly 4000 pilgrims from all over the world died due the rulers negligence without an apology and compensation for the victims. It is Saudi Arabia that has built madrasas and centers that spread perverted interpretation of Islam disguised as Sunni Islam all over the world. Add to this partial list, the Saudi government’s role in funding some of 9/11 attackers that might be revealed once the classified 28 pages report are made available would leave no doubt that the Saudi rulers are not just a bad ally, they are a threat to U.S. (and (world) security.
5. The Saudi rulers have used their oil-generated wealth to influence, bride, and blackmail governments and individuals around the world. The reported threat that the kingdom would pull out $750 billion off the U.S. economy is evidence of their strategy for remaining in power at home and relevant around the world. Blackmail is not the behavior of a great ally.
U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia is a heavy burden. As that region transitions towards representative governance, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, its support for dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak, al-Sisi, Umar al-Bashir and other authoritarian leaders, and its export of the perverted Wahhabi interpretation of Islam will necessarily force Western governments to choose between the peoples of the region or continue their support for unelected rulers. An alliance that does not take into consideration the interests of peoples is an alliance of convenience that cannot stand the test of time. U.S.-Saudi Alliance is such alliance; it has outlived its utility.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Saudi Arabia’s Impracticable Alliances

Saudi Arabia’s Impracticable Alliances



Saudi Wahhabism at home and abroad and the arrogation of Islam

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia *

Abstract: Before WikiLeaks released the Saudi diplomatic cables in 2010, the rulers of Saudi Arabia had cultivated the image of being deliberate, moderate, and averse to confrontation. Since the start of 2011, the Saudi rulers have behaved in ways that annulled that perception. The Saudi rulers hosted the Tunisian dictator and refused to extradite him to face criminal and corruption charges, criticized the U.S. for not standing by Hosni Mubarak, turned down a coveted seat on the UNSC, sent its armed forces to crush a peaceful protest in Bahrain, armed Salafists to overthrow the Syrian government, engineered a political coup that displaced the democratically elected prime minister of Iraq–Nuri al-Maliki, and launched a brutal war on Yemen committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the process. Days before beheading a religious leader who spoke against the oppression of Shias, the deputy crown prince and minister of war of the kingdom announced the creation of an “Islamic military coalition,” consisting of 34 countries to combat terrorism. These are not the actions and temperament of deliberate, moderate leaders. These are the actions of impetuous, nervous, and paranoid autocrats who seem to be running out of options as their internal, regional, and global allies abandon them.
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In order to forecast the future of the Saudi monarchy, one must understand its origins, culture, and friends and allies within and without the kingdom. Most of the territory known today as Saudi Arabia was under the suzerainty, if not the full control, of the Ottoman Empire since 1517 CE. The modern kingdom, however, has its origins in 1744, when the two Muhammads–Muhammad Ibn Saud and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab formed an alliance to control the region near Riyadh and start their expansion to rule over almost all of the Arabian Peninsula. This alliance made the monarchical system, ordinarily frowned upon in conservative Islamic legal traditions, a viable form of government in a deeply conservative society. 

The second pivotal point started in 1938 after oil was discovered and the Saudi-U.S. alliance was born. This alliance, too, brought together two countries that, by most standards, reside in opposite extremes of political and cultural spectrums. The United States is a nation with a self-declared commitment to human rights, religious freedom, political pluralism, and civil liberty. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a country ruled by a regime that imposes the strictest social and political codes that prohibit women from driving cars or traveling unaccompanied by a family member, systemically discriminates among people on sectarian and religious grounds, bans political protest and public dissent, and imposes a criminal justice regime that is in conflict with international treaties and humanitarian law and conventions.
Yet, it is these unlikely alliances that the Saudi rulers have struck that provide the regime with relative stability at home and sweeping influence around the world.
While the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance defined the religious and political character of the kingdom, the Saudi-U.S. alliance spelled out the economic and security terms that guided the kingdom’s regional and international affairs. The Saudi-U.S.alliance was built on reciprocated leverage. The Saudi regime needed stability and legitimacy given its extremist religious creed and its staggering human rights record. The United States needed a reliable source of cheap oil to power its manufacturing-based, transport-dependent economy and life style. There was also an added benefit of this unlikely relationship: the presence of a U.S. ally, like Saudi Arabia, in the Persian Gulf region limited the Soviet Union’s reach into the region. 

When the Soviet Union’s increased influence in the Middle East was the primary threat to U.S. interests in the region, Saudi Arabia was crucial in firewalling the Arab world against Soviet intrusion. The Kingdom used both a religious discourse that deaminized communism and dramatized the threat of socialists’ takeovers, and oil-generated wealth to buy Arab regimes’ compliance.
With the exception of the pseudo socialist (or pseudo revolutionary) regimes in Egypt (during the rule of Nasser), Algeria (during the rule of Boumediane), Syria, Iraq (under Ba`athist regimes), and Libya (under Qaddafi), Saudi Arabia was able to use religion and money to keep other Arab regimes in the West’s camp. 
The Saudi assistance to U.S. went beyond the Arab world. The rulers of Saudi Arabia were instrumental in making sure that Pakistan was on the side of the United States during the U.S.-USSR proxy war in Afghanistan. Pakistan served as the ideological and military training ground of the Wahhabi-Salafi fighters recruited from all over the world to fight the Soviet Union in central Asia.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance also allowed the Saudi rulers and wealthy individuals to build and control Islamic centers in North America and Europe and use these centers to spread Wahhabism cloaked as orthodox Sunni Islam. The presence of Saudi-linked Islamic centers explains the disproportionate number of European citizens, as opposed to Muslims from other Muslim-majority countries, joining ISIL in Iraq and Syria in the last five years.  

ISIL condemned Saudi religious and political leaders in its recent publication, Dabiq, NO. 13.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-Saudi alliance continued their joint efforts of undermining governments deemed unfriendly to either or both countries. To topple the revolutionary Shi`i regime that overthrew the Shah of Iran, whom the U.S. and UK intelligence services installed in the stead of the democratically elected government in the 1953 coup, U.S. administrations and the Saudi rulers worked together to instigate and support Saddam’s war on Iran from 1980 until 1988. The two governments collaborated to confront Saddam when he invaded Kuwait. Lastly, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in muting Arab opposition to U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the outcome of the invasion of Iraq turned out to be catastrophic for the U.S and for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. One of that invasion’s byproducts was the creation of a path to political power for Iraqi Shi`as—the Iraqi majority long oppressed under the Ba`ath regime.

To manage this and many other side effects of the invasion of Iraq, the Saudi rulers, first, attempted to limit the power of the Shi`as by promoting and eventually implementing a political arrangement that gave Kurdish and Sunni minorities virtual veto powers either through the presidency or the parliament that paralyzed Shia-led governments. The so-called safeguards that were said to protect ethnic and religious minorities produced a very weak government and fractured institutions that continue to threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq. 
 
Weak government coupled with instability in Syria provided the kind of environment in which Combatant Salafists thrive. In the summer of 2014, the Salafist group known as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), used the instability created by the protest movement in Sunni towns moved quickly and took over Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, and a number of other Sunni cities and towns in northern Iraq, linking them with territories the group controls in northeastern Syria. Subsequently, the group’s leaders declared that they have re-established the Islamic caliphate and adopted the name, the Islamic State. The group went on to absorb other smaller Salafi fighting groups in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and North Africa. Before the end of 2014, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, condemned the Saudi regime calling it the illegitimate, infidel Salul Clan. That declaration essentially damaged the bond between Salafism and Saudi Arabia. The state of Saudi Arabia is no longer the sole protector and enabler of Wahhabi-Salafism.
The illegal invasion of Iraq and the subsequent material and human cost increased Americans’ reluctance to intervene militarily, especially when there is no strategy for the day after regimes fall. Moreover, the wave of peaceful protests, popularly known as the Arab Spring, removed two of the regimes that were part of the so-called “moderate axis” and threatened every other regime in the Arab world, including the Saudi rulers. The fact that the U.S. was willing and able to let close allies, like Ben Ali and Mubarak, fall alarmed the Saudi rulers not because of perceived ingratitude to Mubarak and Ben Ali, but because they feared that the U.S. government could abandon them, too.
The Iran Deal that resolved the nuclear standoff between Iran and Western powers only increased the Saudi rulers’ anxiety. However, when Wikileaks released the Saudi diplomatic cables and revealed its secret dealings, the Saudi rulers decided to take off the mask of moderation and act aggressively, assertively, and without restraint.
To stay in power, and due to their peculiar alliances, the rulers of the Saudi kingdom need to pursue two paths that necessarily lead to different outcomes. They need to secure their people’s consent and international legitimacy at the same time. However, what they must undertake to appease the Saudi people, the majority of whom are by now fully indoctrinated in Wahhabi-Salafism, will necessarily alienate other Muslim and non-Muslim countries who suffered acts of terrorism perpetrated by followers of Combatant Wahhabi-Salafism. This paradox stems from the kind of arrangement the Saud clan has made with Wahhabi clerics during the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi rulers often accuse other governments, including the ones with a history of shared governance and the presence of democratic institutions–imperfect as that might be–of lacking legitimacy. Yet, they often reject criticism of their treatment of women, religious minorities, and lack of legitimacy as blatant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom. They often argue that that Saudi society, due to its religious and cultural heritage, has its own form of social contract that bestows the Saudi regime with legitimacy and sovereignty.
Culturally, Arab communities living in the Arabian Peninsula have generally recognized a tribal system that allows the most dominant clan to preside over all other clans granted that all other clans are represented in the advisory council, known as the shuraor ahl al-hall wa-‘l-’aqd.  
Religiously, the Saudi form of government echoes the 7th century Umayyad model whereby the most powerful of clans monopolized political power and the institution of religious scholars, `ulamā, dispensed religious decrees and counsel to the caliph. In this paradigm, the political leaders were legitimized by the religious scholars, but religious scholars depended on the protection and patronage of the political leaders. 
The Saudi rulers have decided from the outset to rely on only one traditional school of thought, Hanbalism, and adhere only to the advice of the most conservative modern authorities of that school of thought, Wahhabists. Modern Saudi society has been engineered to reflect Arabic tribal culture and live by Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which makes the kingdom very unique politically, religiously, and socially. The combination of Saudi Arabia’s economic power and ultraconservative religious discourse produced supremacist attitudes.
The political and military actions the Saudi rulers have undertaken in the past five years reveal serious flaws in defining problems, understanding global trends, and designing long term strategies to reform their political and religious institutions. In order to overcome some of the existential threats to the current regime, the Saudi rulers must learn, adapt, reform, and respect their neighbors. Their actions, thus far, however, are rooted in ignorance, arrogance, and sectarianism. 
1. The Saudi rulers have failed to understand that the post-digital media era is fundamentally different from the pre-digital media era. There is no amount of money that could enable any government to filter all information indefinitely.
2, The Saudi rulers want to preserve a culture and religious tradition that is in conflict with the traditions and practices of the rest of the Islamic world. The Saudi practices and the demands of the modern world are in conflict. They have to choose between being part of a diverse world and a unitary society. They cannot be part of the world and broader Islamic societies without reforming their way of life to accept other expressions of Islam as valid and to peacefully co-exist with other religious and non-religious communities.
3. The Saudi rulers want to remain relevant in the world and appear strong at home. To be strong at home, they have to live by a religious code that is shared with al-Qaeda and its derivatives. For them to earn the support of the public they have to take positions that would place them, ideologically and politically, to the right of ISIL. They understand that. That is why they beheaded 44 people in one day in the first month of 2016. That is unprecedented even by ISIL’s standards. To remain true to their religious and cultural norms, they have to maintain the theological position that the Shias are heretic, outside Islam. They understand that. That is why they beheaded the most prominent Saudi Shia on the same day they killed 46 Wahhabi-Salafi extremists.
4. The Saudi rulers want to appease their Wahhabi-Salafi religious establishment by appearing tough on heretic Shi`as. However, that same position creates problems for them with the world community. There is no place for supremacist ideas and practices in this ever more connected world. 
5. Their strategy is to cloak their disdain for Shi`as in the false claim that Iran is interfering in the affairs of Arab and Sunni Muslim countries. That strategy failed since no country cut diplomatic relations with Iran on that account. Instead, the small number of countries cut their relations or recalled their diplomats to protest the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic buildings, not to protest Iran’s condemnation of the beheading of the Shia scholar. Desperately, the Saudi rulers called for emergency meetings of the Arab League and OIC to rally Muslim countries against Iran, but none of the other 57 Muslim majority countries cut diplomatic relations with Iran. In fact, even Pakistan, a close ally of Saudi Arabia for decades, offered to mediate between the two countries; it did not side with the kingdom. Frustrated by the lack of solidarity from some Arab countries, the rulers of Saudi Arabia rescinded a decision to gift Lebanese military security agencies four billion dollars and threatened similar actions against other governments that threaten “Arab unity”, which meant not going along with Saudi directives. These actions backfired, prompting Morocco to refuse to host the year Arab League summit, citing discord and lack of consensus among leaders.
In the end, the Saudi rulers’ current strategy for staying in power is doomed to fail because it is built on too many contradictions. The harder the Saudi rulers work to appease the Saudi people at home the harder it becomes for them to convince the rest of the world that they are inclusive, non-sectarian, and serious about fighting terrorism. The anti-terrorism law the late king laid out in March 2014 was a cover for persecuting, and prosecuting peaceful dissenters. The law equated between a blogger who raises awareness for social justice and a genocidal fighter who sees himself in pursuit of a divine mission to purge the world of all who are not true Muslims. 
Similarly, the “Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism” will fail once its members realize that the Saudi rulers want to use it as a cover to pursue a sectarian agenda and an attempt to legitimize their rule within and outside the kingdom. The rhetoric of “hazm” seems to be directed at the Shi`as. The Saudi military forces avoided any level of confrontation with al-Qaeda and ISIL fighters in Yemen. In fact, since these groups did not exist in large numbers in Yemen before Saudi Arabia had begun its bombing campaign, and since they are now in control of a number of Yemeni cities and provinces, it stands to reason that the Saudi air force provided the cover and support to insert those groups in southern and eastern Yemen.
What is at stake?
The Saudi rulers’ actions in the region, their attempt to create coalitions of Islamic nations to define and confront terrorism, and the increased reach of Combatant Wahhabi-Salafists lead to the conclusion that the future of Islamic thought and practices and welfare of Muslims is at stake. The link between the brand of Islam that is espoused by al-Qaeda and its derivatives and that which is taught and practiced in Saudi Arabia is established beyond any measure of reasonable doubt. That version of Islam is a frozen reconstruct of some practices and thought from the eighth and ninth centuries. The religious clerics of that brand of Islam do not distinguish between the immutable theological creed and the circumstantial political and legal enunciations. Simply put, the Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam is not compatible with other expressions of Islam, including the teachings of Sunni Muslim jurists of Malikism, Hanafism, and Shafi`ism.
Should Sunni Muslims allow the Saudi rulers and their Wahhabi-Salafi muftis to define Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy, Islamic thought and practices will be rendered incompatible with international law treaties, universal declarations, and the requirements of modern life in this increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. 
This is not to suggest that Wahhabi-Salafism should be outlawed or eradicated because suggesting so will be an affirmation of al-Qaeda’s and its derivatives’ practices. Freedom of thought, conscience, and worship guarantee everyone, including Wahhabi-Salafis, the right to believe whatever religion or interpretation thereof they wish to follow. Indeed, if Saudi Arabian society wishes to believe and practice only Wahhabism, then the Saudi people should be able to do so, as long as they refrain from imposing their beliefs on others by force.

Muslim communities, especially the Sunnis, must challenge the Saudi rulers’ attempt to project themselves as the defenders and exemplars of true Islam, because Wahhabi-Salafism hardly represents historical Islam that inspired the Islamic civilization. Muslim scholars must speak clearly and forcefully against the teachings and practices that are abusive to human dignity. Sunni Muslim scholars, especially, must speak against the genocidal practices that have taken many lives and endangered the wellbeing of millions more, in their name.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

The legacy of the illegal war on Iraq and the burden of befriending the Wahhabi rulers

The legacy of the illegal war on Iraq and the burden of befriending the Wahhabi rulers



A day after the couple Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CNN reported that Malik had made “a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Subsequently, it was reported that Malik attended al-Huda, a religious institute whose funding and curriculum were decided by Saudi benefactors, and Farook visited Saudi Arabia and married his wife in that country. The connection between terrorists and Saudi sponsored religious institutions is well documented. The connection between ISIL and its derivatives, terrorism, and the civil war in Syria and Iraq must be properly understood and factored into any global strategy to combat terrorism and reduce violence around the world. Law enforcement officials’ reaction to the San Bernardino shooting–suggesting that the attack “may have been inspired by ISIS” but “not directed or ordered” by the group–shows that the connection between Saudi political/religious systems and terrorism is not properly made and understood.


Besides the usual claims of responsibility that ISIL releases after the fact, there is no evidence that the group ordered or directed any of the other attacks, including the most recent ones in Beirut, France, and Tunisia. Distinguishing attacks inspired by ISIL from the ones ordered by ISIL reveals a lack of understanding of the ideology and methodology of ISIL and an incoherent response that allow this group to carry out its genocidal agenda. This willful ignorance is present among federal law enforcement officials and political leaders, the main authorities that are supposed to formulate a comprehensive strategy to neutralize and eradicate such threats. Moreover, the occurrence of these brutal attacks in many countries, Muslim and non-Muslim majority ones, underscore the link between the crises in Syria and Iraq and the spread of terrorism. It is now clear, that the longer the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars are allowed to continue the graver the threat of terrorism around the world. Therefore, defeating ISIL in Syria, Libya, and Iraq is necessary to protecting civilians in this country and elsewhere. These conclusions are based on a number of facts.

1. Once in control of territories in Syria and Iraq, and upon declaring himself “caliph,” al-Baghdadiordered, through his spokesperson al-Adnani, all his followers all over the world to carry out all kinds of acts of violence against anyone who disagrees with his interpretation of Islam everywhere—inside or outside Muslim majority countries. The order included specific and appalling instructions about murderous acts and targets. That order was meant to be open as long as the “Islamic State” is in existence. With that being said, the notion that ISIL did not order this or other attacks is factually untrue. 

2. Ideologically, every lone terrorist and every fighter in the ranks of ISIL and its derivatives, from the ones who carried out the 9/11 attacks to the ones who carried out the attacks in Tunisia, follow Salafism. Not all Salafists are ISIL terrorists. However, it is immanently true that all ISIL terrorists are Salafist. Therefore, terrorism cannot be defeated without confronting states that espouse, sponsor, and support Salafism and Salafist figures and force them to purge their educational and religious institutions from hateful and genocidal ideas.

3. The fight against combatant Salafist terrorists of ISIL and its derivatives must be constitutional and within the limits of international law. No government should imprison or kill Salafists based on membership, only combatants in the ranks of ISIL and its derivatives can be pursued so that the war on genocidal fighters is not turned into an ideological war against Salafism or Islam in general. Analogically, the KKK espouses a genocidal ideology not that different from ISIL’s but the US government does not arrest or kill KKK members just for being members. The same standards should be applied to Salafism and fighters affiliated with ISIL and its derivatives to prevent leaders of these groups from using real or perceived Western double standard for propaganda and recruitment purposes.

4. The US’s anti-ISIL coalition has failed to contain, let alone defeat, ISIL because it had embraced a strategy based on the faulty logic of equating the malfeasance of the government of Assad with the crimes of ISIL and its derivatives. The equivalency is factually false for a number of reasons:

4.1. Before and after the peaceful uprising of 2011, Assad’s government has not distinguished among Syrians on the basis of sect or religion. ISIL and its derivatives have.

4.2. During the peaceful uprising, Syrian government’s soldier did not blow up homes belonging to specific religious groups, destroy bridges and public buildings, kill police officers at checkpoints, execute them and chew on their internal organs, and enshrine rape and slavery. FSA and ISIL fighters did. Indeed, some Syrian security forces violently attacked protesters, arrested opposition figures, and tortured political prisoners–common practices among all Arab regimes–and perpetrators of such acts should be held to account. Those who took up arms and hijacked the peaceful uprising should be held responsible, too.

4.3. After the peaceful uprising and during the civil war, Assad’s government did not behead people because they were Christian, Shi`a, secular, or kafir; ISIL and its derivatives did and continue to do so.

4.4. The 250,000 thus far killed were not killed by Assad. They were killed by FSA rebels, fighters from ISIL and its derivatives, and government forces. FSA, which was initially the umbrella organization of all rebel groups including al-Nusra and ISIL, self-documented their fighter committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

4.5. The millions of displaced Syrians were not forced out by Assad. If they were, why haven’t they left before the civil war. They were forced out by ISIL and other armed groups that moved into their neighborhoods, towns, and cities, in violation of international law of war, bringing war to civilian areas. ISIL and its derivatives are the ones who attack communities on religious and sectarian grounds, purging area after area from religious and ethnic groups. Damascus and other cities still controlled by Assad are still inhabited by Sunni, Christian, Shi`a, and Alawites; Alawites, Shi`a, or Yazidisare not able to live in cities under the control of ISIL or its derivatives.

4.6. Assad’s government, as authorized by the old and current constitutions, did not and has not wanted to impose its version of the shari`a on all Syrians. ISIL and its derivatives have.

5. Removing Assad will not remove ISIL, it will strengthen it and here are the facts that support this conclusion:

5.1. In Libya, Qatar and its allies, backed by NATO planes, armed the rebels arguing that removing Qaddafi will end extremism and usher in democracy in that country. Qaddafi was murdered in 2011, yet, just two weeks ago, ISIL’s branch in Libya declared the coastal city of Sirte part of the “Islamic State”, in addition to its other stronghold of Derna.

5.2. In August 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration, was forced to resign after having had won the elections by a huge margin, so that ISIL is defeated in Iraq. Instead of being defeated, ISIL was able to take over more cities and provinces, including Ramadi, which lies just 70 miles west of Baghdad.

5.3. Before the Saudi war on Yemen, leaders of ISIL and its derivatives admonished their Yemeni followers for not building significant presence in Yemen. After Saudi Arabia and the coalition of countries under its economic sway bombed that impoverished country for nine months and after they sent Sudanese and even Colombian mercenaries to southern Yemen to push the Houthis and their allies out, ISIL and its derivatives moved in and are now in control of a number of cities and provinces in the south and east of Yemen.

5.4. In Syria, ISIL and its derivatives extended their control over areas previously controlled by the Free Syrian Army and other so-called “moderate” rebel groups. There is no evidence to suggest that “moderate” rebels were, are, or will be able to wrestle away territory from ISIL and its derivatives and hold it for long periods of time. Only the Kurdish fighters, who are not part of the rebel groups, are able to resist and even defeat ISIL, but only within Kurdish majority areas.

5.5. ISIL and its derivatives exist in countries with failed states. If the Syrian government is further weakened or were to collapse, ISIL and its derivatives will fill the void. Therefore, providing support for the Syrian government is the only sensible, practical, and legal option to defeat ISIL and its derivatives.

6. ISIL and its derivatives did not have the capacity to carry out threats around the world and control territory in Syria and Iraq without the political, financial, and military support they have received from individuals and countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The evidence presented by the Russian military about oil from areas under the control of ISIL being sold in Turkey is damning. Russia’s evidence, in fact, only confirms what NATO members had communicated to Turkey in September 2014, when they asked Turkey to “tighten its border controls, stem the flow of fighters passing through Turkey, and crack down on the oil smuggling from Syria that is financing ISIL.”

The US administration must push for a principled definition of terrorism and terrorist entities. Administration’s official focus on ISIL, and only ISIL, as a terrorist organization in Syria raises doubt about the US commitment to ending the violence in Syria and fighting all terrorist groups-not just ISIL. US rhetoric criticizing Russia for not limiting its airstrikes to ISIL distorts reality and gives comfort to other genocidal groups and their sponsors. 

When considering that ISIL’s leaders adopted three different namesin the past three years, looking at a name to identify which is or is not a terrorist group becomes absurd. Singling out ISIL as the only terrorist group that should be fought allows the latter’s members to join other groups like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are equally genocidal in their thinking and practices. After all, al-Nusra was al-Baghdadi’s original armed group in Syria before he had a fall out with al-Julani. Instead, of waiting for groups to self-identify as subscribing to al-Qaeda ideology, the world community must come up with an objective definition of terrorist entities taking into account the nature of the creed, practice, and connections of the group. This way, the name of the group would not matter. What the ideology it espouses and acts it carries out should determine if the terror label shall apply.

Should ISIL and its derivatives be allowed to continue to occupy and control cities in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, or Yemen and should the ideology espoused by ISIL fighters go unchallenged, the recent attacks in Beirut, Paris, Tunis, and San Bernardino will not be the last. The US must work with the Syrian and Iraqi governments, now, not in six or eighteen months, to defeat these genocidal fighters. Instead of continuing to send weapons to today’s moderate fighters who will be tomorrows ISIL soldiers, the US and its allies should send those arms to the Syrian government troops, the only legal force on the ground that can defeat ISIL and that can be held responsible for past and future violations of international law of war. If the international community has evidence that Assad or any of his generals have ordered the murder of civilians, they should pursue legal action and seek justice for the victims, not remove him by arming his adversaries in violation of international law. 

If the US administration wants to protect its citizens, end racist and hateful threats against American-Muslims, and stop the flow of refugees, it must develop a principled, not political, strategy to defeat genocidal fighters in Syria and Iraq. It should start by confronting regimes and individuals who provide moral, ideological, financial, and military assistance to ISIL and its derivatives. It is reckless to tolerate ISIL and its derivatives so that Saudi Arabia or any other country achieves some geopolitical goals. It is irresponsible for the US administration to continue to give credence to the bizarre Saudi logic that the presence of one man, Assad, created ISIL and its derivatives, and that his removal will result in ISIL’s defeat. ISIL and its derivatives have existed in many countries not ruled by Assad, and have existed long before Assad’s troops fired a single bullet in Syria’s cruel civil war. As a first step in fighting terrorism, stopping the civil wars that create the suitable environment for terrorism, and ending Saudi spread of hateful, genocidal ideology, Syrian and Iraq must be made whole again.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

The Genealogy, Ideology, and Future of ISIL and its Derivatives

The Genealogy, Ideology, and Future of ISIL and its Derivatives

Abstract: The organization known today simply as the “Islamic State,” or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh (English, ISIL), has historical and ideological roots that go beyond the territories it now controls. These deep roots give Daesh confidence that it will succeed in dominating the world, but give others reasons to believe that it will fail in controlling even a single nation. Mixing puritan religious and political discourses, ISIL managed to dominate all other armed opposition groups in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya) and has inspired individuals in many other countries (Egypt, Pakistan, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) to carry out brutal attacks in its name.

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Dogmatic Origins: Traditionism
In Islamic societies throughout history, Islam has been defined by one fundamental question: are religious foundational principles, as expressed in the Qur’an, created or eternal? For more than two centuries, Muslim religious scholars’ opinion, which informed political authorities, held that religious principles were created. Individuals seeking government jobs were required to answer a simple yes/no question: is the Qur’an created? The correct answer during the first two centuries was yes. This era, on balance, could be called the Age of Reason I, during which a school of thought led by a group of thinkers known as al-Mu`tazilah—generally categorized as Reasonists (Ahl al-ra’y)—dominated public life. 
With time, this elite theological and legal position, which was backed by the office of the caliph, grew stronger and became a tool for suppressing dissent. Resistance was inevitable. Some religious scholars refused to go along and produce the expected answer, choosing instead to say, “it was God’s words.” These figures were known as Traditionists (Ahl al-hadith), as opposed to Reasonists. While Reasonists held that reason and circumstance must play a role in interpreting and applying religious principles and imperatives, Traditionists believed that tradition cannot be superseded by reason or circumstance.
There are many other points of contention that divided Muslim communities during the formative period (first three centuries) of Islam along at least three sects (Ibadism, Sunnism, and Shi`ism) and eight legal denominations (Malikism, Ja`farism, Hanafism, Hanbalism, Shafi`ism, Zaydism, Isma`ilism, and Ibadism). However, the point of contention that truly explains current crises in Islamic societies is whether religious principles are tools to promote social justice and address social problems, or whether they are sacred principles that must be applied regardless of their effect on humans. Division over the primacy of religious principles cuts across sectarian and legal currents, most pronouncedly among the so-called Sunni communities.
Traditionism in the context of Islamic societies is best expressed in Hanbalism, founded by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal in the first half of the third Islamic Century. Traditionism, called Salafism by its adherents, holds that the purity and authenticity of Islam is ascertained through an organic chain of authorities and institutions that connect today’s Muslim community to the original teachings and practices of Islam through the opinions and practices of the ancestors (salaf). The Salaf, thus understood, consists of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Sahabah), the Followers of (or those who came after) the Companions (Tabi`in), the Followers of the Followers (Tabi`i al-tabi`in), and the masters of the schools of jurisprudence (Ayimmah, Mujtahidun). Although, in principle, Salafists contend that opinions of any of masters of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Malikism, Hanafism, Hanbalism, Shafi`ism) are equally authoritative, in reality, Salafist scholars privilege Hanbalism over all other schools of thought. To some extent, according to Salafism, the authentic sayings and practices of ancestors are as authoritative as the texts of the Qur’an itself. A true Salafist cannot rely on reason to override the opinion and practice of a Companion of the Prophet or a Follower of a Companion of the Prophet.
Ultimately, Salafism is a specific stream of Traditionist interpretation of Islam that relies on a selective chain of scholars that inform the broader base of adherents. The chain of Salafi scholars is not continuous. It is bridged by textual traditions that inform modern figures about opinions of their predecessors who might have lived a century or two apart. For example, modern Salafi figures like Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Umar Mahmoud Uthman (Abu Qutada al-Filistini), Isam al-Barqawi (Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi), Abu Azzam al-Jazrawi, Abdullah al-Muhaisini, Mustafa al-Jakiri al-Rifa`i (Abu Mus`ab al-Suri), Ibrahim Awwad al-Samura’i (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), cite works of individuals whom they never met like Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim, and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. In the end, modern Salafism is ancient Traditionism reconstructed from text-based historical events and sayings.
Today, the struggle that is fueling civil wars and sectarian tension is about the function and status of shari`a, one of the generic terms that refers to religious legal principles and imperatives, which are believed to be derived from the primary sources of Islamic traditions and practices. As it has been the case throughout the history of Islamic societies, what distinguishes Reasonist Muslims from Salafists is the answer to one general question: Is the shari`a a tool for realizing social justice on earth or are humans mere agents that must be sacrificed to impose the shari`a?
Political Origins: Umayyad Caliphate System
Salafism is about religious tradition and the preservation of that tradition in its literalist form. According to Salafi dogma, any deviation from established understanding of religious norms and practices is an innovation, and any innovation is strictly prohibited. The preservation of established tradition goes beyond religious texts. It is also about accepting the political order as is. For Traditionists, the caliphs were guardians of religious traditions. To raise doubt about any given caliph’s ethical and legal standing would amount to raising doubt about the authenticity and transcendence of religious truths. Therefore, Salafism does not dwell on the causes of the civil wars during the reign of the third and fourth caliphs, does not dwell on the transgressions and crimes of the Umayyads, and does not challenge the reign of the Saud clan over Arabia as long as the Saudi rulers act as protectors of pure Sunni Islam and guardians of holy places.
It is worth noting that Traditionism was most successful when it was allied with political rulers. Traditionists were strong when al-Mutawakkil adopted their teachings as Sunni orthodoxy. Salafists are strong now because of their alliance with the wealthy rulers of Saudi Arabia. State-enabled theology was their best path to project influence. Their disdain for reason limited their ability to influence public opinion through the deliberative processes, and because of that they have preferred a top-down process of imposing what they see as religious principles.
The most advantageous path to power and influence for Salafism is through the brute force of the sword or gun and strong alliances with powerful governments. By declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate, ISIL essentially declared Salafi independence from the Saudi patronage that sustained Salafism for nearly a century. Salafism is now enabled by the “Islamic State,” formerly known as the ISIL, which was formerly a branch of al-Qaeda.
ISIL’s Connections: U.S.-Saudi-Wahhabi Tripartite
In modern times, and in order to keep Salafists in check, the sponsors of the Traditionist creed created two streams of Salafism, each built on a distinct strategy: 
1. Religious purity/authenticity is ascertained through separation of religion from politics. This path created a form of secularism that recognized two parallel authorities—one religious and one political. These Traditionists formed al-Da`wa wa-‘l-tabligh, who went on proselytizing without engaging political issues. In return they were allowed to preach publicly and enjoy some governmental and private support. These groups, generally, belonged to what became known as Learned Traditionism (al-Salafiyya al-`ilmiyya). 
2. To meet some international challenges and to help project influence globally, the sponsors and sustainers of Traditionists also encouraged some Salafists to combat ungodly ideologies, like communism and atheism. They were taught that stopping the spread of communism and atheism, ideologies strictly prohibited in Islam because they deny the existence of God—according to Saudi religious scholars, was a religious obligation. These adherents subscribed to Combatant Traditionism (al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyyah). 
Eventually, the two groups complemented one another. Learned Traditionists provided religious context for ideological wars. They helped produced the body of literature, institutions, and networks that sustained Traditionism in general. When necessary, these ideologically trained adherents joined Militant Traditionists in defense of the community (ummah) from ungodly ideologies such as communism in Afghanistan—justifying the war against the Soviet Union, and secularism (`ilmaniyyah) in Algeria, Tunisia, and almost all other Muslim majority countries. They worked to impose religious order on corrupted Muslim societies from Morocco to Malaysia.
What we ought to remember, however, is that the US-Saudi alliance that empowered Militant Traditionists in Afghanistan produced Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq and the US-Saudi alliance against Assad in Syria produced ISIL. These are not abstract speculations. Even the architects of the Iraq war admit as much.  Tony Blair, Bush’s ally and strong supporter of the illegal invasion of Iraq recently declared:
Of course you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation [in Iraq] in 2015… There are elements of truth in the fact that the invasion is responsible for the rise of ISIS. –Tony Blair, CNN, October 25, 2015). 
The Future of ISIL and its Derivatives:
ISIL is the expression of a Traditionist position that is present in all Semitic traditions, if not all religions. As the data shows, Traditionists who do not believe in broad, free public participation in defining and applying religious traditions are strongest when enabled by the state or when relying on brute force to impose their will from the top down. This model cannot survive the test of time.
ISIL’s teachings and practices might be enough to sustain a culture. But it is not capable of sustaining a worldview or civilization. Combatant Traditionism in Islamic societies is a backward-looking ideology with no place for diversity, plurality, reason, art, or any other human invention that has no roots in the formative period of Islam. An ideology that aspires to establishing a monolithic community is in conflict with its own sources of authority and with human nature. Even the literal interpretation of some Islamic texts suggest that God does not wish to coarse all humans into accepting one faith: “Had your Lord wished it, He could have made all of the earth’s inhabitants, all of them, believers. Is it up to you, then, to force people to believe?” [Qur’an: Yunis, 99]; see also [Qur’an: Hud, 118-9]. 
To aim for an earth inhabited by people who follow a single creed and live by one law is to be delusional in aspiration and genocidal in practice. Neither religious tradition nor historical records support the Traditionists’ position and aims. 
The world in which we live has always been full of people with diverse ideas, diverse racial backgrounds, and diverse social orders. Throughout the history of Islamic societies, there has never been a caliphate that imposed one law and one orthodoxy and lasted beyond the reign of one caliph or one dynasty. Even the most idealized caliphal period, known as the Righteously Guided Caliphate, was full of dissent, tension, rebellion, revolution, and bloodshed.
During the righteously guided caliphate, the most prominent leaders of that era held that the principles derived from religious texts were intended to establish social justice, not to be blindly imposed. In other words, they understood that the shari`a is supposed to be in service of human beings, not that human beings can be sacrificed to impose the shari`a. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, nicknamed al-Faruq for his commitment to fairness, invented an inheritance law principle that contradicted the explicit Qur’anic dictates. The principle of proportional distribution of legacy, `awl, diminished all the Qur’anic share otherwise due to Qur’anic heirs to accommodate grandparents in the presence of first and second generation heirs. Moreover, Umar reportedly suspended hudud rules during harsh economic times. 
Today, the conflict between theory and practice is evident even in Traditionism formulated and implemented by the same generation of adherents. In theory, Salafism united scholars and adherents from all over the world. Salafist ideologues prophesized that once a pure “Islamic state” is established, it will self-sustain (Baqiyah) and it will self-perpetuate (Mutamaddidah) until the end of time. Such self-assuredness enticed Traditionists from all over the world to make the journey to the lands under the control of ISIL in Syria and Iraq. However, months later, that influx of supporters decreased, the number of Syrian and Iraqi citizens who lived in or near the towns and cities under ISIL’s control left it all behind and sought refuge in European countries, far away from ISIL’s control and influence, prompting the latter to issue a religious edict prohibiting relocation to the land of unbelievers (Kuffar).
In 2014, ISIL and other Salafi affiliated armed groups in Syria went to war against one another prompting Salafi religious figures to call for a truce. A document entitled, Mubadarat al-ummah, drafter and signed by a number of Salafi figures instructed all parties to stop the infighting and put the matter in the hands of a shari`a court. When ISIL rejected the plan, even the most committed authorities of Combatant Traditionism issued opinions invalidating the procedure and substance of ISIL’s project to re-establish the Islamic caliphate. 
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most militant Salafi combatant and successor of Usama Bin Laden rebuked ISIL’s leaders and declared their state null and void. The Jordanian Salafist, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Isam al-Barqawi), who spent many years in prison for his support of Combatant Traditionism, also rebuked ISIL leaders and their state, arguing that they have poor understanding of Islamic tradition and he argued that “ISIL does not have a single scholar who trusted and supported them.” Many other Salafist scholars who previously supported al-Qaeda and its derivatives rejected ISIL’s caliphate, including, Abu Qatada al Filistini, Sami al-Uraydi, Sadiq al-Hashimi, Muslih al-Alyani, Abu Sulayman al-Ustrali, Abu Azzam al-Jazrawi, al-Mu`tasim Billah al-Madani, and Abdullah al-Muhaysini.
The Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi establishment’s authority of Salafism, also determined that ISIL, like al-Qaeda, is a deviant trend (fi’ah baghiyah) and that it must be fought and defeated. Many other scholars of Salafism held similar opinions on ISIL’s ideology and practices. If ISIL cannot enjoy any degree of consensus about its interpretation of Islam and its political theory, how could it secure the support and consent of other Sunni Muslims, especially those who are Reasonists, let alone adherents to other sects, religions, and seculars?
Another problem with the ideology espoused by ISIL and its derivatives is that it is an elitist, top-down vision of Islam because it is derived from textual evidence. Writing is not an activity that preserves the values and practices of ordinary people or the consensus of the community. Writing has been, for most of history, a mode of communication dominated by the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful. Writing and publishing is an expensive and complex mode of producing narratives and recording historical events. Historical written texts are not inclusive or diverse. To reconstruct Islam through the interpretation of a select group of ancient texts is to presume that those texts represented a broad consensus or authoritative preservation of Islam. They do not. Islam was once said to be the religion of an illiterate for the illiterate. Then it was co-opted by the elite aristocrats, like the Umayyads, in the second half of 7thcentury, and the Saud Clan, in the 20th century.
Salafism exists today because it aligned itself, directly and indirectly, with two of the most powerful political orders in the world: a regional power, Saudi Arabia, and a global power, the United States. Salafism’s reach and influence are deep because they are enabled by state agencies and the generosity of wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. 
Today, the Saudi rulers’ belligerent arrogance is stunning. While their air force bombarded the impoverished Yemeni people for months killing scores of civilians and destroying schools and hospitals, they continue to argue their bizarre logic of equating the brutality of Assad’s government to the horror Daesh and its derivatives inflict on civilians around the world.
The Arab Spring put in motion a movement whose effects cannot be fully contained, reversed, or redirected. The Arab countries must adapt to a new reality where the people no longer fear the rulers. This problem is more complex for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. For nearly a century, they presided over a society with no civil institutions like opposition political parties, a free press, or non-governmental organizations—a society dominated by the corrupt clan government or by exclusionary Salafi religious institutions. Should the Saudi government fall, the only group that would be prepared to take power is the Salafist, a religious order that aspire to dominate all others who do not share its views and beliefs. 
The Saudi rulers’ refusal to eradicate Combatant Traditionism is, in many ways, another form of preserving and prolonging their own hold on power. The existence of Combatant Traditionism makes the Saudi regime appear “moderate,” the same way the rise of Daesh made other al-Qaeda derivatives, like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, seem “moderate.” However, Muslims, and the world community at large, must realize that they do not have to choose between Combatant Traditionism and the Saudi regime. Given the evident historical and ideological connections between the Saud clan and Combatant Traditionism, confronting both, the Saudi regime and Combatant Traditionism, at the same time, might be the only path to ending this petrodollar-empowered genocidal alliance.
The Saudi rulers could save themselves and their country from total destruction. They could stop blaming their neighbors, abandon their sectarian rhetoric, and allow scholars from other Sunni schools of thought to engage Salafism, which has enjoyed a virtual monopoly over educational and religious institutions since the Kingdom was founded.
The rise of Combatant Traditionism might also be an opportunity for Muslim thinkers, scholars, and educators to revive Reasonism, the discourse that guided the development of Islamic thought and practices during the formative period (first two centuries of Islam). While Combatant Traditionism is attempting to transcend geographical border to impose a particular narrow understanding of Islam with blind zeal, those who believe in the universality of human dignity need to articulate their commitment to social justice in a way that transcends sectarian, ethnic, religious, national, and ideological fault lines. The Saudi rulers’ sponsored culture puts religious dogma above human dignity. Confronting that culture will launch a social justice driven movement within Islamic societies and lay a strong foundation for dignity-centered movement that transcends all other boundaries.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

U.S. – Saudi Arabia bizarre alliance is becoming a burden on the United States

U.S. – Saudi Arabia bizarre alliance is becoming a burden on the United States



Saudi war on Yemen: total destruction

On Friday May 8, President Obama announced that he was to meet with the Saudi King, Salman, ahead of the Camp David summit with the GCC rulers. On May 11, a day before the summit, the King cancelled his appearance altogether, a move widely characterized as a snub to the President. On Friday July 17, the White House said that King Salman requested that President Barack Obama meet with Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister, despite the fact that the President does not ordinarily meet with foreign officials who are not heads of state. Nevertheless, the President obliged. On August 28, the White House revealed that King Salman would be meeting with President Obama in Washington next Friday, September 4. The Saudi rulers are nervous, but they are blaming the uncertainty they face at home on other countries. The President should restate what he has already said in public: the threats to the Gulf States rulers are internal and of their own making.


Since the start of the uprisings that transformed many Arab countries, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have acted irrationally, arrogantly, and belligerently. As a country that continues to rely on an archaic system of governance, and given the significance of the changes taking place in the region, they ought to be nervous. However, when their paranoia pushes them to act in ways that risked stability and peace in the region, the world community ought to remind them of the limits established by international law and diplomatic protocols. Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said that President Obama and Salman will discuss the conflicts in Syria and Yemen as well as “steps to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” Saudi Arabia has played a very destructive role in these and many other regional and international issues, and the President should tell the King that the behavior of the Saudi rulers is weighing heavily on the U.S.’s reputation and credibility. The Kingdom’s instances of malfeasance are numerous.

1. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Turkey, has supplied genocidal fighters of ISIL, al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham with material and political support, increasing the level of violence and sectarian tension in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

2. Saudi Arabia launched an illegal war on Yemen, imposed a devastating blockade on that country, used illegal weapons, and destroyed roads, airports, ports, schools, markets, and hospitals, pushing the poorest Arab country to the far edge of catastrophic conditions. In the words of Amnesty International, the Saudi-led campaign has left a “bloody trail of civilian death.” Curiously, the Saudi air campaign spared al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen. In fact, the bombing campaign created the kind of environment where al-Qaeda and ISIL thrive, giving them now a stronger foothold in southern Yemen.

3. Saudi Arabia continues to frame the conflicts in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen in sectarian terms, accusing Iran of interfering in Arab affairs when it is in fact Saudi Arabia that is bombing neighboring countries, arming genocidal fighters, and demanding the removal of presidents of other countries, all while harboring other dictators who have killed protesters and blocked real political and economic reforms.

4. The Saudi rulers continue to offer support and sanctuary for religious figures who preach hate, sectarianism, and supremacism. Hundreds of satellite televisions broadcast thousands of programs full of divisive content that has been used to justify the murder of civilians, the abuse of ethnic and religious minorities, and the subjugation of women.

5. While the Saudi rulers are actively pursuing destabilizing agendas in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, all countries that have a tradition of some level of citizen participation in electing their leaders, Saudi Arabia has been governed without its citizens’ consent and the ruling clan has no plans to change that reality.

6. The rulers of Saudi Arabia have relied on Wahhabi religious preachers to legitimize their repressive control over the peoples of the region. Wahhabism, the extreme creed skillfully disguised as pure Sunnism, is espoused by all extremist religious groups who kill civilians on sectarian and religious grounds. The Saudi rulers have used the country’s wealth for the benefit of a single clan and a single religious denomination. While relying on public relations advisers, extensive media outlets, generous investments in prestigious American Ivy League universities, and diplomatic relations with key Western governments, they were able to project a moderate image of a sectarian creed and political philosophy that is actually an ideology of hate, exclusion, and supremacism.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has outlived its utility. If U.S. foreign policy is built on democratic principles and human rights norms, we must ask: what democratic principles and human rights norms do the Saudi rulers espouse and practice? In the post-Arab Spring era, the U.S. administration must align its foreign policy with the nation’s proclaimed values and support peoples’ aspiration for dignity. There are no shared values between clan-based abusive rule and an established democracy. U.S.’s support of a belligerent, criminal regime in Saudi Arabia diminishes its standing in the eyes of Arab masses, validates the double standard charge against the U.S., and exposes U.S. policy as self-interested and unprincipled. The administration ought to change that narrative, and can do so by communicating the above facts to the Saudi ruler on Friday.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Will the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other GCC, fall and why?

Will the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other GCC, fall and why?


Saudi rulers use war on Yemen to remain relevant

The war on Yemen removed the last fig leaf and exposed the tools and advantages the rulers of Saudi Arabia have used for nearly a century to control its population and project power and influence outside the kingdom’s border. The first tool is the strategic alliance with the United States that shielded it from any criticism in international forums and protected it against foreign threats in return for steady flow of cheap energy. The second tool is a brand of interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, which allowed the rulers to enjoy absolute power over the institutions of the state as long as Wahhabism was allowed to use the instruments of the state to project itself as the purest form of Sunni Islam.


Saudi Arabia, despite its abhorrent human rights record enjoyed diplomatic, political, economic, and military cover that shielded it from any criticism or sanctions. In fact, Western countries often referred to Saudi Arabia and the few Arab countries that fell under the direct influence of the kingdom as the axes of moderation. The marginalization of ethnic minorities, diminutive attitudes towards groups belonging to different sects, abuse of foreign laborers, domination of women, selective application of cruel punishments, political corruption, blatant nepotism, and flagrant interference in internal affairs of other countries all went unexposed—beyond the reach of media and even academic scholarship.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia used its wealth-acquired clean image to build religious centers in Western countries and madrasas and mosques in poor Muslim countries and staff these institutions with administrators and imams who were indoctrinated in Wahhabism—albeit under the name of Sunni Islam. In addition to this soft form of proselytizing, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have supplied its global allies with hardened zealots who were ready to fight and die for whatever cause they were able to manufacture. Often times, the interests of Western governments and the ambitions of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance intersected as was the case in Afghanistan in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In this particular case, Western governments, especially U.S. administrations, embraced the so-called mujahidin and they worked together to counter the real or perceived threats posed by the Soviet Union. The same alliance was revived in Syria in the last four years to counter the real or perceived threats posed by Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia wanted to use this alliance in Yemen as well but the Obama administration hesitated. There are signs however, that this freakishly strange union between the U.S. and the Saudi-Wahhabi cabal is about to expire.

First, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings has forced Western governments in general, and this U.S. administration in particular, to realize that the business of protecting unpopular regimes has become very risky. The sudden fall of two “moderate” Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt almost left Western countries on the wrong side of history. They were forced to retroactively overreact calling these former friends and allies dictators. The breaking of the wall of fear that kept Arab masses under check for so long produced a level of political unpredictability never seen before. The Obama administration reaffirmed this reality when it warned the rulers of GCC that their real threat is from their own people not from outside. In other words, U.S. administrations will no longer protect regimes that do not enjoy a popular mandate. They remain, however, interested in protecting countries, especially the ones with clear commitment to representative governance like Tunisia. This distinction between regimes and countries and lack of commitment to protect specific regimes kept four out of the six rulers of the GCC out of the summit at Camp David. Interestingly, the Obama administration also extended NATO’s protection to Tunisia after it denied it to GCC States.

On May 12, the self-declared caliph and leader of the “Islamic State,” al-Baghdadi, declared the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance nulland void. In a 34 minute long rant, he accused Aal Salul (the group’s diminutive label for the Saudi family) of attempting to regain its standing as the protector of Sunni Muslims by launching “Operation Fancy” in Yemen. He called on Saudi Sunni Muslims not to fall for this trick. He explicitly asked them to rise up against the rulers of the kingdom and join the “Islamic State,” which is, in his determination, the true representative of pure Islam and the real “protector” of Sunni Muslims. The fall of GCC regimes will be internal. Specifically, it will come on the hands of the adherents to the brand of Islam they manufactured over the past eighty years: Wahhabism.

Importantly, al-Baghdadi’s statements confirm what some scholars have been saying about the link between Saudi Arabia and ISIL. Al-Baghdadi reaffirmed that his version of Islam was in fact inspired by the same Islam preached and practiced in Saudi Arabia. The difference, however, is that he and his “Islamic State” are living the true faith and practice, whereas the Saudi ruling family support it only in name and form.

These two important developments, the downgraded Saudi-Western alliance and the rise of the Islamic State as the exemplar of Sunni Islam, are terrifying for the Saudi ruling family. The ruling family’s precious investment in religious extremism—as an ideology—and dependence on Western governments—as a national security strategy—are spent. Wahhabism, the brainchild of the family of Saud, has now outgrown its masters and has established its own political and military entity: the “Islamic State.” Western countries are no longer dependent on Saudi oil. Preserving regimes that are rejected by the peoples they are supposed to represent is now very risky. For the rulers of GCC, as it has become for most Arab rulers, the options are very limited: reform or perish.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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