Interview with Angelo M. Codevilla on ‘Romancing the Sunni: A US Policy Tragedy’

Published on Jan 1, 2016 by Asia Times

Angelo M. Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history, answers Asia Times questions on how the US government’s foreign policy mess has created a monster like the ISIS. Today, the Daesh/ISIS — a sub-sect of Sunni Islam — murders and encourages murdering Americans.

READ THE THREE-PART SERIES HERE:

PART 1: http://atimes.com/2015/12/romancing-t…

PART 2: http://atimes.com/2015/12/romancing-t…

PART 3: http://atimes.com/2015/12/romancing-t…

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of fourteen books, including  Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace.  He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.

CIA Awards Saudi Crown Prince Counter-Terrorism Medal

Saudi air force personnel at the King Salman air base. (Photo: © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi air force personnel at the King Salman air base. (Photo: © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s state sponsorship of the hardline Wahhabi ideology exacerbates global extremism, medal or not.

Clarion Project, by Elliot Friedland, February 12, 2017:

The CIA awarded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, deputy prime minister and minister of Interior, with a medal for his services to “counter-terrorism.”

CIA Director Michael Pompeo presented the George Tenet medal to Prince bin Nayef during a trip to Riyadh in the presence of other senior members of the Saudi government.

Accepting the medal, bin Nayef told media that religion was completely separate from the actions of extremist groups, who misuse religion for their own purposes.

“We, God willing, continue to confront terrorism and extremism everywhere, and with thanks to God we have managed to thwart many terrorist plots from occurring,” he said. Bin Nayef and Pompeo also discussed many issues of mutual concern to the United States and Saudi Arabia, including but not limited to the fight against terrorism.

Clarion Project cannot comment on the specifics of this award to Prince bin Nayef, since we are not privy to the details of security cooperation against terrorism between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

However, Saudi Arabia has certainly been instrumental in spreading an ideology which gives rise to Islamist terrorism.

Here are three things you need to know.

1. The State Sponsored Religion of Saudi Arabia Is Very Similar to the Creed of ISIS

Saudi Arabia as described by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud in The New York Times as “an ISIS that has made it.”

The Gulf kingdom is a theocratic absolute monarchy governed in accordance with the puritanical version of Islam known as Wahhabism. This arrangement has been in place since 1744, before the creation of the state, when the Muhammed ibn Saud, the progenitor of the House of Saud, made a deal with the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammed ibn abd al-Wahhab, that the descendants of Ibn Saud would rule the political sphere, while the descendants of al-Wahhab would control theology. That deal remains in place today, with the Ash-Shaikh family controlling Saudi theology. The two families are closely intermarried.

This state sponsored form of Islam mandates the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, sorcery and several other crimes. It prohibits women from going outside unless covered head to toe, prohibits women from driving, as well as a host of other activities such as working or getting a passport without permission from their male guardian. It also mandates the brutal hudud punishments, which include chopping off hands for stealing and lashes for crimes such as adultery.

Wahhabism preaches loyalty to the Saudi state. Jihadists differ in that they regard the Saudi state as a corrupt Western stooge. They adopt the puritanical ideology of Wahhabism, but merge it with a political revolutionary bent.

This synthesis is identified by scholars as salafi-jihadism. Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS share this ideology.

2. Saudi Arabia Has Spent Billions Exporting Wahhabism Globally

Last year, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned Saudi Arabia was funding mosques in Germany linked to extremism.

Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated $100 billion on exporting the ideology of Wahhabism. It has funded mosques, madrassas and academic fellowships and chairs in universities across the world.

These include grants of $10 million to top American universities such as Harvard and Yale.

This money has been used to smother local pluralistic forms of Islam and has fueled a global upswing in religious puritanism and conservatism. This money has created and continues to create the milieu in which extremism can thrive and grow.

3. Saudi Arabia’s Regional Power Struggle With Iran Is Fueling Terrorism

Sunni jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq refer to Shia Muslims (among other pejorative terms) as “safawi,” referring to the Iranian Safavid dynasty which once ruled the region. The confluence of Sunni-Shia sectarianism with a geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has seen both countries fund opposing sides in wars throughout the region.

Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a war in Yemen against the Shiite Houthi rebels in support of a Sunni president. Although the war is more complicated than that, it is being used by Saudi Arabia and Iran as an opportunity to fight against each other’s’ interests.

Saudi Arabia also supported Sunni Islamist rebel groups against Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

This power struggle is fueling armed conflict across the region which creates a fertile breeding ground for more, rather than less, terrorism and empowers extremist groups.

In the light of these three things, whatever the personal and strategic merits of Prince bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s long-term commitment to countering Islamist terrorism should be questioned.

Also see:

Special Ops Command to Pentagon: Stop Ignoring Jihad

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But the Pentagon’s orders are to ignore the jihad come from on high.

CounterJihad, Sept. 26, 2016:

Staff officers of United States Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are stonewalling demands by the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to add Salafi Jihad to the description of our enemies.  The Washington Times reports:

U.S. Special Operations Command has privately pressed the staff of the nation’s highest-ranking military officer to include in his upcoming National Military Strategy a discussion of the Sunni Muslim ideology underpinning the brutality of the Islamic State group and al Qaeda…  The 2015 public version does not mention Islamic ideology. It lists terrorists under the ambiguous category of “violent extremist organizations” and singles out al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

…Special Operations Command wants the National Military Strategy to specifically name Salafi jihadism as the doctrine that inspires violent Muslim extremists. Salafi jihadism is a branch within Sunni Islam. It is embraced by the Islamic State and used to justify its mass killings of nonbelievers, including Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as Christians.  People knowledgeable about the discussion toldThe Washington Times that SoCom has not been able to persuade Gen. Dunford’s staff to include Salafi jihadism in any strategy draft.

The National Military Strategy (NMS) will be a classified document that will spell out the nation’s strategic goals and means of attaining those goals.  It occupies a middle position in a cycle of obtaining the right means to the nation’s strategic ends.  The NMS follows the production of the National Security Strategy (NSS), which is issued by the President of the United States.  The NSS is more general, as the President occupies the higher position of Commander in Chief, and lays out what the President takes to be the important goals of the nation globally.  The NMS is then prepared by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and lays out in much greater specificity military means to supporting the ends identified by the President in the NSS.  The NMS then serves both as guidance for combatant commanders, such as the commander of USSOCOM, and also for helping Congress to identify military budget priorities.

It is a crucial document, in other words, but one over which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has only limited control.  The NSS sets limits on what the NMS can say.  Combatant commands like USSOCOM are deeply interested in the content of the document, as the NMS will set similar limits on what they are allowed to direct subordinate units to say and do.  SOCOM is encountering resistance at the Pentagon because they are asking the NMS to push out into territory that the author of the NSS does not want to enter.  The Pentagon’s orders come from the highest levels on this matter, indeed from the President of the United States himself.

For that reason it is no surprise that SOCOM’s pushback has not yet created any effect on the forthcoming strategy.  Nevertheless, they are manifestly correct about the importance of recognizing that the Islamic State (ISIS) is in fact Islamic.  As the classic text on war by Sun Tzu counsels, a nation can only be confident at war if its leaders understand not only themselves but also their enemy.  Refusing to understand your enemy is a crippling defect.

However, the identification of the problem as Salafi theology is only a partial fix.  Certainly within the context of the question of ISIS and al Qaeda, whom SOCOM have been instructed to treat as enemies, Salafi and Wahhabi Islam are the correct subsets of Islam to consider.  Yet there is another “brand” of Islamic theology that is just as radical, which is the velayat-e faqih model of Shia Islam pushed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.  SOCOM has not been ordered to treat Iran as an enemy.  Rather, the US military has been ordered to avoid conflict with Iran, and to operate alongside Iranian-backed irregulars in Iraq as if they were allies instead.  The result has been that our fighting forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria, as well as our naval forces in the Persian Gulf, have been exposed to huge risks that they are forbidden to combat.

Meanwhile Iran continues to develop long-range nuclear-capable missiles for warheads it currently swears it will never produce.  Iran installs advanced new anti-aircraft missiles to help fortify its Fordow nuclear site, which President Obama’s deal supposedly put beyond use.  Why fortify it against air attack, then?  Why develop missiles if you never intend to have a payload that would make them a useful option?

It is clear that our military is being forbidden from even thinking clearly, or speaking clearly, about the threats we face and where they originate.  The next President will need to reverse course, and quickly, if we are to avoid a disaster that costs American lives, America’s position in the world, and America’s national strategic goals.

Why It’s So Hard To Prosecute Islamists And Keep A Free Society

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Anjem Choudary’s case exemplifies the difficulties we in the West face in dealing with homegrown Islamic radicalism.

The Federalist, by M. G. Oprea, Aug. 23, 2016:

The British Muslim “hate preacher” Anjem Choudary has finally been convicted after 20 years of preaching fundamentalist Islam aimed at radicalizing young Muslims and encouraging them to engage in terrorist activities. Last week, he, along with Mohammed Rahman, was found guilty of inviting support for ISIS in speeches and lessons posted online. Choudary’s case, and his long history of Salafist extremism, exemplifies the difficulties that we in the West face in dealing with homegrown Islamic radicalism.

Choudary, a British citizen born to Pakistani parents, has spent two decades working toward global Islamic domination. These are his words. He wants Islamic law to spread throughout the world, and told the Washington Post in 2014 “We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam.” He has also said that “Britain belongs to Allah.”

Choudary founded multiple Islamist and Wahhabist organizations in England, all of which were eventually banned. He has connections with numerous other Salafist and Islamist groups and is a known leader of “dark networks” that stretch across Europe and seek to radicalize young Muslims. He has praised terrorists, including the 9/11 attackers, and proclaimed they are in paradise. He has been friendly with a top ISIS figure and executioner, who at the time was part of the terrorist group Sharia4Belgium, and is connected to more than 100 British terrorists, and many terror plots.

Terrorism’s Victims Include Freedom of Speech

But somehow Choudary has managed to skirt the law all these years. A lawyer until 2002, he knew how to step up to the line of criminality without crossing it. Although his influence on European Muslims is well-known and -documented, he managed to skate by on technicalities of the law, because he hadn’t engaged in terrorist activities himself, nor was it proven he had directly sent people to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.

What finally allowed authorities to arrest him last year and convict him this month was an oath he signed to ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in conjunction with speeches posted online that called on Muslims to join ISIS. As a prohibited organization, membership in ISIS is considered a criminal offence. British authorities convicted him of “inviting support for a proscribed organization,” under Terrorism Act 2000.

Choudary’s case raises questions of how far freedom of speech extends, and what ought to be done with terrorists once convicted. Although freedom of speech in Britain is a long-established common law right, in recent years it has suffered many setbacks. A Reason magazine article from last year highlighted the policing and punishment of Twitter users and journalists, as well as advertisers (a notable case was an ad banned in London for supposedly body-shaming women by depicting a fit woman in a bikini).

But what about here in the United States? People often ask what we should be doing at home to protect our country from Islamist terrorism. While presidential candidate Donald Trump would point solely to immigration, this misses the glaring fact that many Islamist terrorists were born in America or came as young children. This list includes Omar Mateen (Orlando), Faisal Mohammed (University of California-Merced), the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon), Syed Farook (San Bernardino), Nadir Soofi (Garland, Texas), and Nidal Hassan (Fort Hood).

Terrorists like these are drawn to Salafist Islam either in their communities and mosques or on the Internet. It isn’t always clear what the authorities can legally do beyond monitoring radical clerics and mosques and looking for connections between radicalized individuals and groups. How far can they go in policing what Islamists are preaching?

It Would Be Difficult to Prosecute Choudary in America

Freedom of speech is perhaps the most crucial right in a free society. There’s a reason it was the first right enshrined in the Bill of Rights: it’s meant to protect citizens from government attempts to silence dissent and regulate ideas and messages. In America, a country with arguably the most robust free speech protections, there are only a few exceptions to this First Amendment right. These include speech others own, child pornography, commercial speech, obscenity, and fighting words. None of these, however, are applicable to combatting Islamists, who are essentially supporting terrorism without providing terrorists with direct material support like guns, bombs, or money.

The one type of unprotected speech that would be applicable in a case like Choudary’s is incitement to violence. Speech that advocates force is unprotected, but only if its intention is to produce “imminent lawless action” and is likely to succeed. This could potentially apply to the sermons of Salafist imams, which, if encouraging people to fight with ISIS, are promoting lawless action. However, proving that they’re likely to lead to imminent action is more difficult.

Expressing even the most reprehensible views is protected by the First Amendment, including having a Ku Klux Klan parade or arguing for the overthrow of the government. So an Islamist imam could preach beliefs whose natural conclusion might be violence, but so long as he isn’t calling on a crowd to go out right away and commit terrorism, his speech is protected. This is why we may not have been able to prosecute a man like Choudary here in America.

Another way unprotected free speech comes into play is “true threats.” This recently made news when a Missouri woman was arrested for retweeting Twitter posts calling for the murder of U.S. law enforcement officials. The tweet contained names, addresses and phone numbers. Federal prosecutors argue that her retweets are tantamount to active support of ISIS, and charged the woman with conspiracy and transmitting a threat across state lines. Her defense, based on First Amendment grounds, argues the charges are unconstitutionally vague, once again illustrating the tension between free speech and national security.

Prisons Aren’t a Great Place for Islamists, Either

Once a conviction is made, as with Choudary, the problems don’t end there. Choudary faces up to ten years in prison. But what will he do once behind bars? Prison systems have become notorious in Europe and America for breeding radical Muslims, so a man like Choudary poses a threat inside as well as outside of prison.

Islamists in prison are treated like “aristocracy,” according to an audit of French prisons. When Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, was arrested and sent to the Fleury-Mérogis prison he was “welcomed as the messiah,” according to one guard there. That same audit also found jihadi inmates can easily communicate with the outside world, including Syria.

So officials face a difficult decision between keeping Islamists like Choudary in the general population, where they can influence and indoctrinate other men, or concentrating Choudary and others like him in cell blocks so they don’t have access to non-radicalized inmates. This, of course, has its own dangers, namely that these men may plan future attacks and terrorist operations together. The third option, total isolation, is widely unpopular in places like Britain and France, where it is, perhaps correctly, seen as inhumane and cruel.

Choudary’s stay in prison will last a maximum of ten years. Then what? Does he get out in a few years after having been active in prison, and go on as he did before? Perhaps this time he’ll be more careful so as not to get caught. Some countries are working on de-radicalization programs, but their success has been dubious.

Choudary’s case typifies the difficulties the Western world faces in combatting radicalization. As a country that is fundamentally based on concepts of liberty and freedom of speech and of association, our principles and constitutionally protected rights sometimes run up against threats to national security. This is the great challenge we will face in the fight against Islamist ideology and homegrown radicalization in the years ahead. For a sense of the challenges to come, we need only look to Europe, where that fight is well underway.

M. G. Oprea is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She holds a PhD in French linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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Muslim refugee brought to Maine by Catholic Charities dies waging jihad for the Islamic State

Jihad Watch, by Robert Spencer, Aug. 16, 2016:

Catholic Charities is criminally irresponsible and suicidally short-sighted. They are endangering people in Maine and all over the United States by bringing these jihadis into American communities that are unprepared for them, all the while lying to them and telling them that there is no jihad threat related to the refugees, and that anyone who says otherwise is a racist and a bigot and a dissenter from the magisterium.

Adnan Fazeli went to the Islamic State to wage his jihad. What if he had decided to wage it right there in Portland, Maine? What’s to stop the next jihadi refugee that Catholic Charities brings to Portland from deciding to do just that?

Islamic-State

“Documents: Freeport man died fighting for Islamic State,” by Scott Dolan and Megan Doyle, Portland Press Herald, August 16, 2016:

An Iranian man who came to Maine as a refugee in 2009 became radicalized in his Islamic faith while living here and was fighting for the Islamic State when he was killed last year in Lebanon, according to newly unsealed federal court documents.

Adnan Fazeli, 38, most recently of Freeport, came under investigation by the FBI for his connection to the terrorist group shortly after he left his job at Dubai Auto in Portland to fly to Turkey on Aug. 13, 2013, and never returned.

Fazeli, who also went by the names Abu Nawaf and Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi, was killed on Jan. 23, 2015, in a battle near Ras Baalbek in Lebanon as part of an Islamic State attack force of about 150 that was thwarted by the Lebanese army.

Those details, which were never revealed publicly before, were contained in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland last Oct. 27 by Maine State Police Detective George Loder, who was acting as a member of an FBI task force investigating whether other people were aware of Fazeli’s plans to fight for the Islamic State, helped him travel to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon area or supported his efforts there. The affidavit remained under seal during the investigation, which ended with no criminal charges.

The affidavit gives the accounts of four anonymous informants for the FBI who described how Fazeli’s behavior began to change about a year after he came to the Portland area through Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services. They told the FBI that Fazeli frequently watched hours of Islamic videos online, grew a beard and began making anti-American remarks while at an Iraqi market in Portland.

While the informants are not named in the affidavit, Fazeli’s nephew, Ebrahim Fazeli, told the Portland Press Herald on Monday that he informed the FBI about his uncle after Adnan Fazeli called the family from Turkey. The affidavit describes one of the informants as a close relative of Fazeli’s.

“Fazeli’s change in behavior alienated him from many of his Shia and moderate Sunni friends in the area. However, there were a few local Sunnis who supported his fervor and treated him with a great deal of respect. Fazeli started holding occasional religious meetings at his home in Freeport,” Loder said in the affidavit, describing what one informant had said.

Ebrahim Fazeli, 25, said the family was unaware of his uncle’s plans to leave the United States. His uncle had become more religious and grew a substantial beard, but the nephew said no one realized he had become radicalized.

“That wasn’t enough for me to think an educated, smart guy has it in him to join an insane group of people,” said Ebrahim Fazeli, who lives in the Greater Portland area….

Fazeli initially came to the United States as a refugee in 2009, but did not adapt well. He told one informant that he hated Iran because the government was anti-Sunni and felt the United States had done nothing to help. Although Fazeli was raised a Shia Muslim, his family was not devout, one of the informants said. His behavior began to change while in the U.S., and he converted to Wahhabism, an austere form of Sunni Islam….

While Fazeli was abroad, he continued to communicate by Skype chats with at least one of the informants, who later shared videos of the chats with FBI investigators. In one video, Fazeli said that he and his Islamic State allies could kill 1,000 enemies for every 10 of their own killed. In another video, he wore a khaki camouflage military uniform and inquired whether any U.S. government authorities had begun asking questions about him….

Fazeli’s relative called the FBI on Jan. 26, 2015, to report that Fazeli had been killed, according to the affidavit. The same relative emailed a copy of a news article in Arabic from the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar to the FBI on Jan. 28, 2015, that describes how “tens” of ISIS fighters were killed in a clash in Ras Baalbek, a Lebanese Christian town near the Syrian border threatened by both the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria. The article listed one of the dead as Abu Abdullah Al-Ahwazi, Fazeli’s other name….

Jalali said Fazeli self-identified as Arab, not Iranian, because he came from the southern and western part of Iran. In Maine, he mingled primarily with Iraqis.

“He talked about enjoying religious freedom here. That’s why I am so shocked,” Jalali said. “He praised this society for its openness.

“How he could go through that transformation, that’s a mystery. That’s quite heartbreaking. It reminds us of the power of social media, brainwashing bright, educated men and turn them into fighters or killers.”…

The medium is not the problem. The message is the problem. This is not a story about the power of social media. It is a story about the power of Islam’s call to jihad.

Also see:

Saudi Arabia’s ambivalent relationship to terrorism

House of Saud - House of Cards?

House of Saud – House of Cards?

Saudi Arabia is often accused of supporting jihadist groups. Now, the monarchy is helping Berlin’s security authorities in the fight against terror. What appears to be a contradiction is not.

DW, by Kersten Knipp, Aug. 8, 2016:

A jihadi inspired rampage in a regional train near Würzburg; and a bomb attack – designed to kill a large number of people but gone awry – in Ansbach: Both attacks were supposedly orchestrated by men in Saudi Arabia that gave the attackers instructions from afar, via chat.

That is the story the German magazine “Spiegel” is reporting in connection to chat protocols in the possession of federal agencies. The magazine also refers to information provided by a high-ranking government official in the Saudi capital Riyadh. According to the official, several telephone numbers show that the two young men were in close contact with the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS) in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has now announced comprehensive cooperation with Germany in investigating the recent attacks in Bavaria.

For years, Saudi Arabia has been the source of what has appeared to be contradictory information. First, the country is accused of exporting an extremely conservative strain of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which also happens to be the kingdom’s state religion. Shortly after the outbreak of war in Syria, accusations that the monarchy was financing jihadi groups that were not only seeking to topple the Assad government but also create a new “caliphate” under the control of the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS), grew louder. And finally, for years the West has considered Saudi Arabia to be an important partner in the fight against jihadist terror.

Dubious commitment

Sebastian Sons, Middle East expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), tells DW that the news is not as contradictory as it initially seems. “The Saudi government has been involved in the fight against terror since the attacks on America in September 2001. That was partially a reaction to US pressure. But it was also because institutions in the kingdom were increasingly the target of jihadist attacks as well, first by al-Qaeda and later ‘IS.'”

At the same time there are a number of religious foundations in the country, and some of these, as well as a number of wealthy individuals, have great sympathy for the aims of “IS” and provide the organization with financing. “Such money transactions are now being very closely monitored.” Yet, there is no way to exert total control over them. “Firstly, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the capacity to do so. And secondly, one has to say that there is serious doubt about whether they have the political will to do so.”

Nevertheless, even if the royal house had the will, it would be able to do little about it. Because the House of Saud, which has controlled the country since it was founded in the eighteenth century, is totally dependent upon the conservative Wahhabis. It is the religious movement that lends the Sauds the ideological legitimacy upon which their rule is based.

Alliance between religion and politics

The moral foundation for the rule of the Sauds was established by a religious scholar hailing from an area near what is now the capital Riyadh. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as the scholar was known, was born in 1703, the son of a judge.

Ibn Wahhab developed an entirely new criteria with which to judge the legitimacy of regional rulers. This legitimacy, he said, only existed as long as rulers abided by the tenets of religious faith. Political leaders, according to Wahhab, must comply to the will of god in all that they do. Should they fail to do so, they forfeit their legitimacy.

Thus, subjects were given a clear criteria with which to judge their rulers: Do their actions express the will of god, or not? It was a radically emancipating idea, yet it carried the seed of later abuses in it from the start: For who determines what god’s will is?

Ibn Wahhab came up with a unique solution to the problem: He directly tied religious power to political power. And he did so by seeking out an alliance with the most powerful partner of his day: Prince Saud l., ibn Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad al-Saud, the conquerer of the Emirate of Diriyah, the first Saudi state. The prince secured the theological power of his religious partner with his own military might. And in return, the legitimacy of his political rule received the scholar’s religious blessing.

The alliance between these two families, the ruling Sauds and the descendants of ibn-Wahhab responsible for answering all religious questions in the kingdom, has continued to hold until this day.

Unresolved dilemma

This alliance, by necessity, also determines the royal family’s current reaction to terror. “The royal family sees terrorism as an extreme security threat, but it still has to align itself with the Wahhabi scholars in terms of ideology,” says Sebastian Sons. This means that the monarchy is constantly forced to tolerate its – at times radical – world view. They rarely have the luxury of refusing to give their support. “The structure of the Saudi state is based upon the alliance between Wahhabi scholarship and the House of Saud. That is a unsolvable dilemma for the royal family, even today.”

That means that the rest of the world will have to live with the reality of more attacks being orchestrated from Saudi Arabia. As long as ideological extremism cannot be overcome, security measures can only help to a point.

A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began.

Saudi women stand on the opposite side of the hallway from men at the American Express World Luxury Expo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March. An argument that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with Islam has drawn a sharp backlash. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Saudi women stand on the opposite side of the hallway from men at the American Express World Luxury Expo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March. An argument that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with Islam has drawn a sharp backlash. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

New York Times, by Ben Hubbard, July 10, 2016:

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — For most of his adult life,  worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.

Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country where alcohol is banned. But the men of “The Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.

A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.

For years, al-Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting SUVs.

He even said women had to cover only their faces if they chose to. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, al-Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

Al-Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.

In an undated handout photo, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi and his wife, Jawahir, appear on TV. (Handout via The New York Times)

In an undated handout photo, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi and his wife, Jawahir, appear on TV. (Handout via The New York Times)

For the Western visitor, Saudi Arabia is a baffling mix of modern urbanism, desert culture and the never-ending effort to adhere to a rigid interpretation of scriptures that are more than 1,000 years old. It is a kingdom flooded with oil wealth, skyscrapers, SUVs and shopping malls, where questions about how to invest money and interact with non-Muslims are answered with quotes from the Quran or stories about the Prophet Muhammad.

The primacy of Islam in Saudi life has led to a huge religious sphere that extends beyond the state’s official clerics. Public life is filled with celebrity sheikhs whose moves, comments and conflicts Saudis track just as Americans follow Hollywood actors. In the kingdom’s hyperwired society, they compete for followers on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. The grand mufti, the state’s highest religious official, has a regular television show, too.

For Saudis, trying to navigate what is permitted, “halal,” and what is not, “haram,” can be challenging. So they turn to clerics for fatwas, or nonbinding religious rulings. While some may get a lot of attention — as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for killing author Salman Rushdie — most concern the details of religious practice.

Al-Ghamdi, 51, said the world of sheikhs, fatwas and the meticulous application of religion to everything had defined his life.

But that world — his world — had frozen him out.

As a new member of the commission in Jiddah, al-Ghamdi had felt that he found a job that was consistent with his religious convictions. Over the course of a few years, he transferred to Mecca and cycled through different positions.

But he developed reservations about how the force worked. His colleagues’ religious zeal sometimes led them to overreact, breaking into people’s homes or humiliating detainees.

“Let’s say someone drank alcohol,” he said. “That does not represent an attack on the religion, but they exaggerated in how they treated people.”

In 2005, the head of the commission for the Mecca region died and al-Ghamdi was promoted. It was a big job, with some 90 stations throughout a large, diverse area containing Islam’s holiest sites. He did his best to keep up, while worrying that the commission’s focus was misguided.

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