Even though I have a fair complexion, I am not white as many Muslims on the Twitter make me out to be. Yes, the only Twitter account I follow is Eminem’s but I am hardly the only wimpy kid whose memory of teenage is intertwined with his music.
Yet, I get called a white supremacist in my Twitter DMs almost every time I put out a tweet about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Most of the times I don’t respond to such messages but there are times when I do feel the urge to just correct the record.
When I tell them that my parents are Muslims, the person almost always assumes that they must be Shia Muslims. It follows that I must be a Shia Muslim and thus harbor sympathy for Iran. It seems to them the only reason why I would criticize the Saudis for Khashoggi’s murder.
Upon telling them that my parents belong to the Sunni sect, most of the times they just appear confused. I try to explain that my parents’ religiosity doesn’t determine which world leader I criticize, most just stop replying. Some, however, do respond and try to guide the lost sheep that I am but over time they too give up.
Prevailing Thought in the Muslim World
Now, I am not sampling a couple dozen Twitter Jihadists defending Saudi monarchs for all 1.6 billion Muslims. But, it is a pattern that fits most of the Muslim societies. Their kinship dictates their loyalties and animosities.
If you are a Shia, you are likely to voice support for Iran and Hezbollah. Likewise, if you belong to the Sunni sect, you tend to not even count Shias as ‘real Muslims’. Blind loyalty is the overarching principle in the Muslim world. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the case of Israel-Palestine conflict.
Almost all Muslims in the Muslim world support the Palestinians. But ask them about the history of the conflict, UN resolutions, demands by Palestinians and Israelis, various wars, annexations, and recent news, almost all of them go blank. I would be willing to bet that about 2/3rds can’t even locate West Bank and Gaza on a map.
Nevertheless, they remain the most ardent supporters of Palestinians.
Because Palestinians are Muslims. To borrow Noam Chomsky’s phrase, to most Muslims, Muslims are the only ‘worthy victims’. It is apparent by the school curriculum and the news coverage in the Muslim world. Yemenis over the last years have lived under worse conditions than Palestinians.
Compare news coverage in any Muslim country and you would likely find that coverage of Palestinian suffering is covered at least twice as much. Even in Iran that has a stake in the Yemen war, the media covered last week’s skirmish between Israelis and Palestinians more than the Yemen War.
As poorly as the western media covered the Yemen war, coverage in the Muslim world was even worse. Why? Because the criminals who committed atrocities in Yemen were also Muslims so that doesn’t count. Just like Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh do not make it in history curriculum of any Muslim nation, the Armenian genocide is also missing.
It doesn’t mean that there is a Muslim conspiracy going on.
Changes in Muslim Thought and Culture
The reason for all of this is the change in Muslim culture over the last five decades. Look up the school curriculum of Iran in the 1960s, or Pakistan’s, or Afghanistan’s, or even Turkish (up til Erdogan rose to power) during the same decade. It was largely secular. Islam as a separate subject did not exist. It was merged under religious studies where students were taught even about the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita.
Leaders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were covered in detail and even philosophies of Socrates and Aristotle were taught as a subject. These days, only a couple of pages cover their legacies if even that. The education system puts greater emphasis on Islam as the state religion while other religions are not even covered.
So what changed?
In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Israel despite their disagreements, came together to quash secular Arab movements. It pleased the United States, which increased Israel’s military aid substantially and grew even closer to the House of Saud. From that point on, the United States and Saudi Arabia moved to spread radical Islam across the Muslim world.
The version of Islam they spread was Wahabism, which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and advocates returning to the 7th-century law. Sufi Islam that played an important role in spreading Islam through missionaries, was fought against though it still exists in Morroco, Senegal, Iran, Pakistan, and India.
Going into the 1980s, CIA under Ronald Reagan, Saudi clerics, and Pakistani military dictator, General Zia, funded Jalaluddin Haqqani to publish schoolbooks in Afghanistan that glorified terrorism and militancy. The schoolbooks advocated fighting against the ‘foreign invaders’, which were the Soviets.
Then when the United States began setting up bases on Muslim land, Jalaluddin Haqqani reasoned that Americans were also ‘foreign invaders’ and fought against the US forces, which turned him into an enemy. In Pakistan, General Zia is held in contempt but for wrong reasons.
He was the one who used his military might to ‘Islamisize’ the Pakistani constitution as well as its’ education system. Rather than reverse his laws, the incoming civilian administrations kept them in place to win support from the Islamists. The Islamic revolution in Iran, ‘Jihad’ against the Soviets took place simultaneously.
We know very little about sociology but we do know tells us that in uncertain times, people herd together with those who look, think, and behave like them. This compartmentalization of communities in what used to be heterogeneous societies further defined the religious and sectarian divisions, which exist to this day.
Unlike the more liberal period of the 1960s where Muslims discussed philosophy and debated ideas, from 1980s onwards, the sectarian loyalty took precedence. This loyalty meant defending your community and the ideas they hold against all enemies including logic and reason. Rather than turning outward, they turned inward and tried to find spirituality without the urge to explore new ideas.
In most Muslim countries today, the culture of reading even among the educated middle classes remains poor. Most of the books that they do read are religious in nature. Not religious in ways that may challenge their current beliefs, but religious so that it reinforces the beliefs they already hold. Their historical knowledge contains very little beyond the watered down version of events taught in schools.
That’s more or less where we are today. It is due to this that Saudis or other Sunnis tend to think that my criticism of Muhammad bin Salman has to be because of my kinship to a sect or a country. The idea that I might be taking a stance for freedom of the press or human rights scarcely reaches them.
It doesn’t mean that all of them are willingly running a propaganda ministry for the Saudi Crown Prince. I think that most of them genuinely feel a kinship with Muhammad bin Salman and with Saudi Arabia.
Personally, like many who take the trouble to study religions, I am areligious. For this reason, I am not going to cite myself as an example of boycotting Saudi Arabia. My boycott of Saudi Arabia doesn’t match the boycott by someone who felt at least some affinity with Saudi Arabia.
My Parents Brief Background
My parents are religious. They pray a couple of times a day, sometimes even three or four times. They fast during Ramadan and on a few other occasions, celebrate Eid etc. But adhering to the Islamic principles, they also accept the Bible and Torah as God’s Holy Books.
They often read them since the Quran is not nearly as extensive as Bible or Torah. Quran cites certain stories such as those of David’s and Noah’s but to get the full context, you have to open up a Bible or Torah, which most Muslims are unwilling to do defying one of the five basic tenets of Islam.
My parents are fond of reading and re-reading the Greek and Norse mythologies, which most Muslims deem heresy even though they precede Islam. One of the things that reduce my father to tears is the movie ‘The Passion of Christ‘. When I moved out of their house to attend college, one of the things they often advised me to do was to visit a Holocaust museum so I don’t forget the depravity that humans are capable of.
In a nutshell, as far as Islamic principles go, people like my parents are closer to Islam than those who commit violence in its’ name. I am not giving an opinion on Islam but I just cannot accept that someone who claims to know God and act according to his will would hold his creation in such contempt just because they worship a little differently or don’t worship at all.
In September, my father told me that my mom had asked him to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. They had February in mind. I wished them well. Just a day before Jamal Khashoggi would be murdered inside a Saudi consulate, we discussed Muhammad bin Salman’s unfettered power in Saudi Arabia. He said that as an investor, he wouldn’t feel comfortable risking a dime in Saudi Arabia.
Discontent with Saudi Arabia’s State Actions
When Khashoggi’s news broke, I was on the phone with my father and told him that Khashoggi was missing after entering the Saudi consulate. He went silent for a while and then said that MBS must have killed him. My father hadn’t read any of Khashoggi’s pieces but it was just so bleeding obvious. It just had to be Muhammad bin Salman.
As details came out from the Turkish press that they began chopping up his body while he was still alive, my dad wouldn’t speak of the matter. Next, we talked about it was when Jamal Khashoggi’s son went to see King Salman and MBS. In one of the photos, King Salman was seen pointing at Khashoggi’s son with a frown on his face. The second photo was even worse; a son having to shake hands with the alleged killer of his father.
My father had been a critic of Muhammad bin Salman ever since the New York Times broke the story about MBS owning a $309M Chateau on the outskirts of Paris and a $400M yacht while leading a crusade against corruption and overspending. So when the media kept the Khashoggi’s murder in the news, he felt optimistic that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t choose a person over the state.
He couldn’t fathom that Saudi Arabia would let such a brat be called ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. To him, that was an insult to Muslims everywhere. A murderer with a heart of a beast was not an emissary of 1.6 billion Muslims.
When Human Rights Watch came out with a report on torture of feminist activists in Saudi Arabia, that was the last straw for my parents. My mother especially was disturbed by the forceful ‘kissing and hugging’ of the detainees.
We discussed the stance Canada had taken in response to the Saudi crackdown on activists. She agreed that it was the right response so was severing economic ties with the Saudis. As an off the cuff remark, I mentioned the BDS movement. Surprisingly, she seemed very interested. Ranting about the poor coverage of the Yemen war, she said she was surprised that no one had started a BDS movement against the Saudis.
I discussed the implications of it, which included being barred from entering the GCC nations. We have been to Dubai numerous times for vacations, both my parents liked it there. They have long reconciled with the idea that I can never visit the middle east again due to my criticism of the GCC nations. I asked my mom if she could live without ever going to the middle east and she said she could.
Soon we got to the point where she mentioned their planned pilgrimage. She said her ‘conscious told her not to go as a plea to God’. All her life she has had this idea that ‘God notices her protests’. Then she began discussing the implications (from God’s point of view) of Saudis putting pilgrims off with their conduct.
What might he do, she asked. I said that it wasn’t a philosophical question. Saudis had actually barred Iranian Muslims from the pilgrimage in 2016. My mother, of course, knew about it but somehow it had slipped her mind. She wondered why Muslims from other nations hadn’t boycotted the pilgrimage in an act of solidarity with their ‘Iranian brethren’ and I rolled my eyes so hard (luckily we were talking on the phone).
Next day, my mom called me and said she just couldn’t go for pilgrimage in the current environment. It was her protest to the God. She intends to go for pilgrimage once ‘Allah sets those women rights’ activists free’. Her boycotted isn’t to pressurize the Saudis, she could care less about them. This is her petition to God. My father doesn’t go anywhere without my mom so inadvertently, he also joined in.
Just like a boycott of the Western Wall by an areligious Jewish youth, my boycott of Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean anything. But when someone who spends an hour every day praying to God, boycotts a Holy Site on human rights grounds, it is truly profound. This is just how you feel when you see Jewish Rabbis protesting in Manhattan against the Israeli occupation. I think that sentiment of humanity binds all of us together.
I don’t mean to get preachy but here goes…
Orthodox religious values (such as Wahabism) only make sectarian divisions more apparent. They may bring people of the same religion closer but in essence, it remains hostile to people of other religions. Whereas human rights values bring people from all religions closer.
If you go back in Islamic history to the time when much of Europe was under Islamic control, the prevailing thought was a lot more tolerant. Even Bernard Lewis, a state propagandist, concedes that historically Jews lived better lives under Muslim rulers than they did under the Christian rule.
When Christians won back Europe and forced Muslims off their land, Jewish populations left with them. Islam, unlike most other religions, went through its’ liberal period first and later entered the ‘dark age’ version. Saudi clerics and money, of course, played a huge rule.
This damage by Wahabi clerics can be undone. One of the things that could do it is a healthy culture of Muslim dissidence. Environmentalists face the death penalty on faux charges of ‘corruption on earth’. Saudi Arabia murdered Jamal Khashoggi and has activists and dissident royals in dungeons. Pakistan surrendered to Islamists after vowing to stand by an innocent woman.
Intellectual Culture of the Muslim World
Muslim dissidents who criticize their states are either detained, killed, or forced into exile. These dissidents continue writing books, publishing research, and giving talks but they receive no press coverage in their home countries.
Part of the reason for that is that press in the Muslim world works as a propaganda arm of the state. There may be petty political debates but the spectrum of acceptable opinion is very narrow. Those who step out of line are discarded and ignored.
I am not saying that journalists in Muslim countries have maligned intentions, far from it. They see themselves as doing their nations a service by ignoring certain issues.
It reminds me of an interview Noam Chomsky gave to the British journalist, Andrew Marr, in 1996. Toward the middle of the interview, Marr rebuts Chomsky’s claim that elites control the media.
Marr says that as a journalist himself, he can tell the audience that he is not self-censoring himself. To that, Chomsky replies that he did not say that Marr self-censored himself, he only implied that if Marr didn’t think the way he did, he wouldn’t be sitting there interviewing him.
This also applies to the journalists in the Muslim world. They are hardworking people who sometimes work on low salaries. But if any of them thought that loyalty to the truth mattered more than blind patriotism, they would be out of work.