Blaming Others

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

G.J.H. Dowling

Independent Analyst, Aramco Government Affairs (ret.)

It was inevitable that in the debates roiling the West about the insurgent group now dominating the conflicts in Syria and Iraq — the Islamic State — commentary would appear implicating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the increasingly barbaric mess. Whenever a violent political movement has recourse to Islamic fundamentalism to legitimate itself, there is a knee jerk response to put the Saudi government in the stocks and hurl invective at it. Such bullying is hardly supported by the actual content of the editorializing (or, indeed, the political reality.) Not only does the impassioned punditry not promote objective analysis; by avoiding any reflection on context and history, it seems an effort to shift blame. Three recent examples well illustrate the situation.

Karen Elliot House, a journalist and author of a recent book that portrays the contemporary kingdom as little more than a dystopian nightmare waiting to happen, chastises the Saudi government in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal (August 28, 2014) for military inaction. Adopting an approach that personalizes the critique, Ms. House insists the Saudi government “man up,” overcome a “failure of will” and immediately launch aerial attacks on the Islamic state. That this government isn’t being invited to lead such action ought to “shame” it. Ah, if only unilateral strikes by Saudi F-15s on the Islamic State could put all to right (and get the United States to join in.) Surely Ms. House must know that the Islamic State is as much a symptom as a cause of the political turmoil. What is required is a concerted effort among regional and international states to enact a unified strategy embracing both military and political action. And it appears, from the various news outlets that just such an effort is, belatedly, underway. It won’t be easy, and there are no guarantees. These political waters are not only bloody, they are muddied by numerous instances of failed or failing state institutions set against a clash of regional interests that the American academic Gregory Gause has aptly labeled a new Middle Eastern “cold war.” An irony of the Islamic State’s rapid success is that it has catalyzed the emergence of a broad-based response. The hesitancy that so irks Ms. House is not a function of less than “manly” behavior; it is a justifiably cautious approach to a complex situation. Her accusatory call to arms is inappropriately heated.  

Alastair Crooke, an individual with a background in the British foreign-intelligence services, insists in a piece at The Huffington Post (August, 27 2014), that the Islamic State is  a modern reenactment of the political and ideological forces that shaped the kingdom. History, of course, is always a valuable mentor for an understanding of the contemporary world, but Mr. Crooke’s approach to the etiology of the Saudi political order in cartoonish: “Ibn Saud’s clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions.” No one can say with any certainty what the sociopolitical dynamic might have been in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Arabia. But we are on surer footing with the twentieth, and one thing is clear: the use by the founder of the contemporary kingdom, Abd al Aziz, of an understanding of Islam, was not some theological sleight of hand to extol violence and promote brigandage. It was, rather, but an effort to engender within a pre-literate milieu, marked by a profound cleavage between settled and nomadic populations, a shared system of law and community.

This ideological mechanism, along with a committed effort to settle powerful and autonomous tribes, formed critical parts of Abd al Aziz’s aspiration to transcend societal divisions and underpin the creation of centralized rule. Undoubtedly, the three decades of conquest that were the prelude to the formal announcement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 were marked by violence.  However, what defines Abd al Aziz’s relationship with Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s interpretation of the faith — as G.S. Rentz noted more than 40 years ago — was to maximize its political utility while seeking to limit xenophobic excess. The objective was not to rejuvenate the caliphate in the service of an imagined transnational ummah, but to establish a dynastic system of governance that embraced the lands of his forefathers. That is the essence of Mr. Crooke’s “Saudi-Wahhab project” and not what the Islamic State expresses. Indeed, al Ikhwan, who loom large in the kingdom’s foundational period and whom Mr. Crooke understands both as representing the true moral center of the “project” and a historical doppelganger to the Islamic state, was in fact a confederation of politically prominent tribes that Abd al Aziz sought to envelop and subdue. TheIkhwan rebelled precisely because they did not accept their role in their own subjugation (and the containment of ideological extremism.) Not unexpectedly, they sought to justify their rebellion and challenge Abd al Aziz’s legitimacy in the religious idiom he sought to use. But al Ikhwan’s conceptualization of the faith was not that of Abd al Aziz.

Rebellious groups in the Middle East using Islam for political purposes should surprise no one; in the battles now raging one can hear echoes of conflicts of an earlier time and place. But echoes are never true manifestations of the original sound; they offer, at best, a distortion of it. Do the struggles between tribes and a Nejdean emirate bent on expanding its power in Arabia one or more centuries ago really help us understand the mess-o’potamia, as Jon Stewart calls it? Hardly. In fact, one doesn’t require reference to even a distorted understanding of the “Saudi-Wahhab” project to appreciate why the Islamic State would have recourse to an absolutist, purportedly pure and authentic, understanding of Islam. In the barbaric, zero-sum game now being fought out among various Sunni rebel groups against not only the weakened non-Sunni states of Iraq and Syria but each other, the one who wins may be the one who can not only destroy enemies on the battlefield but outflank all other Sunni contenders ideologically.  To succeed, you need to be not only merciless but “holier than thou.”

The interplay between religious ideology and political violence is complicated, with the causal linkage between belief and action not uni-directional. Facts on the ground count as much, if not more, than one’s interpretation of events. Analysts ought to resist the temptation to blame ideology, as if it were am unmalleable construct that can be exported from place to place and through time to propel individuals into a certain course of action. Yet David Gardner, a journalist for The Financial Times, succumbs to it in “Saudis have lost the right to take the Sunni leadership” (August 7, 2014). “Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma…” and provides a “…limitless sanction for jihad.”  Clearly, Mr. Gardner wishes to pin the blame on the Kingdom for the immoderate nature of the conflict, if not the conflict itself.

Two objections are obvious. First, the Saudi government for at least a decade has worked assiduously to rein in activities, whether by state-sanctioned agencies or Saudi individuals, promoting the kingdom’s faith in a way that might give support to jihadist agendas. Second, in seeking to identify the critical progenitors of the horrors now wracking Iraq and Syria, one must consider the collapse of institutions across a broad swath of territory that had been limiting violence or providing mechanisms for functional political order. A political context of fear and burgeoning violence, no legitimate mechanisms to assuage either, is the fertile ground from which extremism springs. To paraphrase Yeats, the beast appears when the center cannot hold. The presumptive caliph of Islam doesn’t need to rely on any supposed ideological import from the Saudi kingdom to fashion his virulent creed.

Efforts to pin the blame on the Saudis also obscure another truth, one that directly concerns recent United States foreign policy. A key objective of the policy has been the dismantling of states, usually autocracies, that do not concur with our objectives. When the Soviet Union sought to stabilize its proxy regime in Afghanistan, the United States promoted and armed Sunni Islamic insurgent groups to bring it down. When the regime of Saddam Hussein refused to collapse after years of war and sanctions, the United States invaded Iraq and dismantled its state institutions. The United States has promoted the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and has, from time to time, expressed a strong desire to see regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran.   The eradication of political institutions of control in despised regimes may have been justification enough for many in the United States, but such willful acts have been built on illusions of positive outcomes underpinned by militaristic hubris and political naiveté. Autocratic states control the public and exclude competing political agencies. When you remove them, you leave a void. And the invader is rarely invited to stay for the generational task of creating civic structures.

When we now peer over what seems like the edge of an abyss, we would do well to indulge less in condemnation of others and more in a rigorous self-examination. Then, let’s get on with the task of trying to alleviate the disorder we helped conjure.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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