There was a time, not too long ago, when western women leaders visiting Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries would cover their heads with headscarves, walk slowly and submissively, presumably to comply with the law of the land. Even Margaret Thatcher, when she visited Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, had a headscarf and a full length black dress, which was a teensy smaller than an abaya. But this practice is no more followed. Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Theresa May and now Donald Trump’s entourage comprising his wife and daughter had free flowing hair over their heads and nobody in the “holy land of Saudi Arabia” dared to raise eyebrows, let alone make any objection on the pretext of religious doctrine.
Admittedly, Donald Trump had moderated his outspoken and outrageous comments of his electioneering times, such as “Islam hates us” or “all Muslims should be barred from America until we know what the heck is going on”, etc., but not too much. Within a couple of days of assuming the presidency, he hurriedly issued an executive order banning the entry of Muslims from six Muslim majority countries for a period 90 days; but that order has been overruled by court orders. But now there is, what is known as, Trump’s “extreme vetting” in place restraining Muslims travelling to the United States of America. This “extreme vetting” has all the incisive teeth, but no legal constraint on the administration barring, detaining and deporting individuals of the Muslim faith that US customs officials do not like.
Donald Trump’s first foreign visit since his election has been to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s rulers may take it as a recognition of their prominence in the affairs of the world, or as a badge of honour by America, but there is much more to it. It shows Trump’s topmost priority in handling Islamic issues and Islamism. There are, of course, other pressing issues for him, such as North Korea, the Mexican border, Iran, etc., etc., but the topmost issue is definitely ISIS and Islamic terrorism. And where else to start than at the roots?
At a gathering of leaders of 50-plus Muslim majority countries in Riyadh, he declared quite bluntly that “Islamic extremism and Islamic barbarism” must be stamped out and it is the responsibility of each and every state to do so. He urged the heads of states to “drive them (Islamic extremism and Islamic barbarism) out of your place of worship”, “drive them out of your communities”, “drive them out of your holy land” and “drive them out of this earth”. Nothing could be more explicit or more blunt than this exhortation and there is no scope for a spin to be given to his speech.
It needed to be blunt, devoid of diplomatic niceties, to make the message clear to the Muslim heads of state, to Ulema and to apologists. Whenever there was any atrocity in the name of Islam – be it in Paris or Brussels or London or Boston or Orlando or wherever, the apologists would jump up and say that those perpetrators were not Muslims and hence Islam was not at fault. They disregarded the fact that invariably the perpetrators would scream “Allah hu Akbar” (Allah is Great) before committing the atrocity. The heads of states of Muslim majority countries would turn their heads away for fear of a backlash from the mullahs, ardent Islamists and apologists. If they said anything other than offering just lip service, they would face the wrath of these people. Condemning Islamist atrocities is considered in many cases as pure political suicide.
Even in the non-Muslim countries in Europe and America, any undiluted statement against Islamic barbarism is considered toxic. Political leaders in these countries sweeten any condemnation by adding at the same breath “Islam is a religion of peace”. David Cameron of Britain and Barack Obama of America would miss no opportunity to establish this point even when ISIS operatives was engaged in beheading non-Muslims as well as Muslims of the Shia sect in Iraq and Syria in the name of religion.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, had been pumping billions of dollars to the Syria and Iraq conflicts in the hope that Shia elements in those countries would be wiped out. Joined recently to this religious conflict is Turkey under Erdogan, who has taken up the mantle of prolonging the Syrian conflict. It is claimed (Commonwealth Institute publication) that Saudi Arabia alone had spent more than $50 billion since mid-1950s in spreading and sponsoring Wahhabism throughout the whole world. They had not only pumped billions of dollars in the third world countries but also in the western world by setting up innumerable mosques, Islamic centres, Islamic congregations, etc., all under the pretext of religious freedom. Hardly anybody in the West raised any question of why all non-Muslim activities such as establishing churches, temples, etc., and even celebrating Christmas are banned in the whole of the Middle East? Obviously religious freedom goes out of the window there.
Nobody doubts Saudi Arabia’s role in fomenting conflict in Syria or troubles in other parts of the world. Saudi Arabia’s acquiescence towards religious intolerance and its global proselytising based on the ideology of Salafism in the form of Wahhabism is beyond dispute. Now Saudi Arabia may pretend to be the victim of Iranian religious incursion, but the fact remains that Saudi Arabia had been waging religious wars – against non-Sunni Islamic sects, Christians, Jews, Hindus and other religions – well before the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Needless to say, people like Donald Trump did not emerge in a vacuum. Long drawn-out feelings and pent-up discontent among the public found expression in the political ideology propounded by people like Donald Trump. When he shouted, “Until we know what the heck is going on” in his election campaign, it resonated well with the raw emotions of the working-class public. When he authorised using the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, called cynically the ‘mother of all bombs’, over the hiding grounds of ISIS in the hills of Afghanistan, Americans as well as billions across the globe were not too distraught by it. This bomb, known technically as Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), is an air pressure bomb where extreme air pressure permeates tunnels and caves in the hills and mountains and wipes out everything, including any life forms that may be hiding there. When the tunnel gets narrower, the pressure gets higher and hence there is no escape, no matter how many tunnels and sub-tunnels there are, for the ISIS fighters. The ISIS fighters thought that they had found perfect hiding places in the remote Afghan mountains and dug labyrinths of tunnels at enormous depths and then protected the entry points by booby traps and explosives. But hardly did they realise that air can do much more damage than human soldiers and kill everybody within the tunnels.
The other non-nuclear arsenal is the tomahawk missile, which can be launched hundreds or even thousands of miles away towards a target as small as a few square feet in dimension. America launched 59 tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean Sea targeting an airstrip in Syria and about a year and half earlier the Russians launched missiles from the Caspian Sea toward ISIS strongholds in Western Syria. These Russian missiles did not travel in straight trajectories; they had complicated flight paths – travelling over Iran and then veering off to northern Syria, avoiding Turkey’s airspace and then hitting the targets. The technology has so developed that there are no hiding places for terrorists.
So, when Donald Trump told his audience in Riyadh, “Drive them out of your holy land”, it was not a mere exhortation. The implication for Saudi Arabia is abundantly clear. What the 50-plus Muslim heads of states heard — “drive them out of your place of worship” and “drive them out of your communities” — was not just requests and pleas. Donald Trump’s masterstroke was to put all Muslim heads of states together and make them individually responsible for combating Islamic fundamentalism in their own territories.
The establishment of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI) in Riyadh and making Saudi Arabia responsible for implementing that policy is hitting the nail right on the head. No longer can Saudi Arabia play a double role – overtly condemning ISIS and its activities and covertly supporting them.
The Saudi monarch draws its legitimacy, theologically and politically, from being the custodian of two holy mosques (in Makkah and Medina) and the upholder of the fundamental form of Islam – Salafism/Wahhabism. Wahhabism derives its ideology from Salafism which Sunnis believe to be the purest form of Islam. What ISIS carries out in practice is Salafism verbatim.
Now complying with the demand of combating radicalisation is like abandoning the ideology of Wahhabism and thereby removing the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. This will create an existential issue for the Saudi monarchy. But there seems to be no option. It is not an either-or situation. Failing to combat and eliminate terrorism could lead to a sight and sound of tomahawk missiles whizzing past overhead to hit targets within the territory or, even worse, a ‘mother of all bombs’ exploding over the terrorist enclaves, wiping out everything within about a square mile of the land.
However, old habits die hard. A prominent Saudi cleric, realising the dilemma his country faces, tweeted, “Oh Allah, Trump is one of your servants, his fate is in your hands. Command him, whether or not he wishes, to serve the best interests of the Muslims.”
Whether or not Allah has listened to him is an open question.