Saudi betrayal of Palestinians

 

AS I NOTE the Saudi, Israeli and American governments coming together on the same platform to confront Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, I wonder how my father would’ve reacted to the event.

Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been prodding Israel to go to war with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah organization, apparently to divert the Saudi public’s attention away from the regime’s badly botched interventions in Yemen and Syria.  Ofer Zalzberg, a researcher at the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem, reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far been wary of taking on the powerful Hezbollah. Netanyahu, though, has hyped his propaganda blitz against Iran and Hezbollah, apparently to throw a smoke screen around the serious corruption charges he and his wife face in Israeli courts. And Iran-phobia, among other things, has driven Donald Trump, America’s Christian president, to join the anti-Iranian alliance of the Muslim crown prince and Jewish prime minister.

I don’t recall a time since the early seventh century when governments from all three Abrahamic faiths forged an alliance against a common adversary. My late father was an Islamic scholar in the Indian state of Assam and what is now Bangladesh. He used to say that in the Arabian town of Medina, in the early 620s, the Islamic community, or umma, consisted of all three Abrahamic faiths groups: Muslims, Christians and Jews. Eventually, that community split into three. “Baba,” as I called my father, was steeped in the orthodox Islamic version of Muslim history. He blamed the split on Jewish and Christian “betrayal” of Muslims, which included a Jewish attempt to kill the Prophet Muhammad.

The Americans and Israelis have been joined at the hip for decades, while the Muslim world – including Saudi Arabia – viewed Israel as its archenemy because of its occupation of Palestine and ethnic cleansing and persecution of Palestinians. The House of Saud was especially vociferous about its support for Palestinians because most Palestinians are Muslims and it claimed its legitimacy to its service to Islam, which was born in what is now Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi and other Arab autocracies used to be on pretty good terms with Iran during the decades it was also was under an autocracy. The Arab autocracies became wary of Iran after its Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the repressive pro-American monarchy of Shah Muhammad Riza Pahlavi, and replaced it with a populist Islamic government. The Arab monarchs and dictators feared that Islamic populism might spill over to their societies, threatening their despotic rule.

The fear of populist and democratic “subversion” also prompted Arab monarchies to oppose the Arab Spring of 2011-2012 and rally behind the military putsch in Egypt that overthrew that country’s democratically elected government of President Mohammed Mursi.  Mursi belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading Islamic movement in the world. Many Muslims had long questioned the House of Saud’s claim to Islamic legitimacy. Now its hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood eroded that claim further.

Apologists of the Saudi monarchy have had a hard time defending its Islamic credentials. They included Walid Arab Hashim, an economics professor at King Abdul Aziz University in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. During a research trip to the kingdom in 1991, Hashim told me about many activities of the monarchy to promote Islamic causes and institutions around the world.

I told him about many un-Islamic activities I had known members of the Saudi royal family to have indulged in during their visits to the United States. I also asked if hereditary rule could be justified by the teachings of the Quran or the traditions of the prophet of Islam.

I didn’t expect him to give forthright answers to these questions to a foreign journalist, which would likely have cost him his job, and he didn’t. He told me that his country’s ruling dynasty was “a biped animal.” One of its two legs rested on Islam, as its founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, had come to power in the 1920s in alliance with the Wahhabi Islamic movement. The monarchy remained “dedicated to the service” of Islam, he added. Its other leg, he said, rested on Arab tribalism, which historically had supported dynastic rule.

“Which leg does it first put forward,” I asked the professor, “Islam or the dynasty?”

He laughed, without giving me an answer.

I thought I got the answer in July 2013 when the House of Saud ganged up with the Egyptian army General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to get Mursi’s Islamic government toppled and replaced by Sisi’s brutal military dictatorship. Later that year I ran into an official of the Jeddah-based World Muslim Congress (Motamar Al- Alam Al-Islami) who was visiting Washington. The organization is funded by the Saudi government and carries on Islamic outreach and charity work in different countries. I asked the gentleman about the rationale behind the Saudi government’s campaign against Egypt’s Mursi government and support for the military dictatorship that overthrew it and also it’s increasing hostility toward Iran.

He told me on condition of anonymity that both the Brotherhood and Iran had posed “a threat” to the monarchy. Echoing Hashim, the professor in Jeddah, he said the Saudi government had been funding and supporting “many very important programs for Muslims and Islam” around the world. Among them he mentioned Saudi Arabia’s financial and diplomatic support for Palestinians and other “oppressed” Muslim groups. He claimed that the Saudi-led Arab decision to “ostracize Israel in the Middle East has kept Israel from annexing the West Bank and Gaza.”

I recalled his comment as I observed the the Saudi crown prince lurch into the embrace of Netanyahu, while Israel continues to occupy Palestine and expropriate Palestinian lands by building and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.  Except for Iran and perhaps Qatar, other Persian Gulf states are hopping into the Saudi train to Israel.  I wonder what incentive, except the Palestinians’ own fighting spirit, would ever persuade Israel to concede the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

I guess if Baba were alive today he wouldn’t have called the Saudi-Israeli-American entente against Iran and Hezbollah a reunion of Abrahamic faiths. More likely, he would’ve branded bin-Salman’s genuflection to Netanyahu a betrayal of the Palestinians and the umma, most or which remains morally committed to the liberation of Palestine from Israeli colonial occupation.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington, who hosts this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Declare Middle East nuke-free

Persian Gulf monarchies are petrified by the anticipated Iran nuclear deal, being negotiated in Geneva. Last week Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates threatened to try to acquire nuclear weapons technology if they didn’t get one of two things from the Iran deal.

One, they wanted the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program shut down completely. Iran would never agree to that. Secondly, if the program is allowed to continue, albeit at a reduced level, the United States should sign a security pact with them. In practical terms, that would mean insuring the security of their thrones from external and internal threats.  These Arab rulers know that the Iranians have better things to do than lurch into a military adventure. On the other hand, domestic threat to their regimes has heightened since the Arab Spring.

The Obama administration knows that too, and the president recently said so publicly. He said the real security threat facing the Gulf Arab monarchies could come from their disenfranchised and “alienated” public. In recent weeks the administration let the Gulf Arab governments know that while America would be willing to defend their countries against external aggression, it wouldn’t intervene in their domestic feuds and unrest. The message left the Arab royals mopey and grumpy.

The White House had invited all six monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to meet the president on Wednesday to discuss the Iran deal and their security concerns. Led by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, four of the six kings declined the president’s invitation, sending in their surrogates, instead. Obama apparently ignored the snub and made the best of the occasion. He reiterated to his guests America’s “ironclad” commitment to defend their countries against any “external” aggression.

Meanwhile, some American media pundits and others have voiced concern about the possibility of Saudi Arabia following up on its vow to seek the nukes. If it does, the Pakistanis would find themselves in a thorny dilemma. The Saudis underwrote Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the apparent understanding that Islamabad would supply them with the nuclear technology if they need it. Moreover, the kingdom has been a generous benefactor to Pakistan for decades. In fact, because of the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, the current Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is alive today. Then Pakistani military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had overthrown then Prime Minister Sharif in a 1999 military coup, was bent on killing him. Fahd pressured Musharraf into sparing Sharif’s life and sending him  to exile in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, it would also be very hard for Islamabad to defy the inevitable American pressure against sharing its nuclear knowhow with the Saudi kingdom. The Sharif government’s – and top Pakistani generals’ – decision to let the Americans kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan showed the efficacy of Washington’s clout over Pakistan. (The United States demanded Pakistani cooperation in the U.S. Navy Seals raid on the bin Laden compound after a Pakistani intelligence officer had tipped off the CIA station chief in Islamabad about the Al Qaeda chief’s whereabouts in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.)

All the same, the whole brouhaha about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a smokescreen around the root cause of the bugaboo: the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Americans would let Israel hold on to its more than 200 sophisticated nukes and then try to keep Arabs and Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons capability. America’s prodigious exercise to keep Iran from approaching a nuclear “breakout” is meant to deprive the Iranians of a deterrent against Israeli nukes, if they wanted one.

Iranians and Arabs have long been calling on the international community to declare the Middle East a “nuclear-free zone.” That would be the best and most effective nonproliferation program for the region. But Israel and America wouldn’t heed their call because such an arrangement would require Israel to abandon its nuclear weaponry.

It’s about time Americans reviewed their perilous policy on the Israeli nukes to forestall the danger of proliferation in that increasingly unstable region. Washington should get  the U.N. Security Council to designate the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

  • Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom’ (http://beyond-freedom.com).

 

 

Terror bred by grievances, not Islam

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S speech at this week’s terrorism conference in the White House sounded to me like a broken record from the George W. Bush administration. Bush and his advisers attributed Muslim terrorism to Islam.

“Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general. “Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.”

President Obama, too, believes that Islam is a major source of Muslim terrorism. His aides have lined up a group of Muslim clerics, activists and governments to present a “moderate” interpretation of Islam to their fellow Muslims. But unlike his Republican predecessor, Obama is more sensitive about the sentiments of mainstream Muslims, who resent linking their religion to heinous acts like terrorism. Hence he camouflaged his reference to Islam with the phrase “distorted ideology.”

The Muslim “religion,” in the sense religion is understood in the West, has little to do with terrorism. I tried to explain in my last segment that Islam, unlike Western Christianity, doesn’t segregate a Caesar’s domain from God’s. All Muslim domains, private and public, belong to God. In practical terms, the Muslim public sphere is suffused with Islamic values and social outlook.

Of late that the Muslim public sphere has all but submerged under waves of anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. Surveys after surveys have shown that between 72% and 94% of populations in Muslim countries are hostile or antipathetic to America. Their antipathy derives mainly from U.S. foreign and defense policies toward Muslim societies.

Muslim societies are modernizing fast, while becoming more and more attached to Islamic values and Islamic cultural patterns. They’re more concerned about Islamic causes and the global Muslim community.

Obama’s attribution of Muslim terrorism showed his gross misunderstanding of Islam as well as the motives that propel some Muslims into acts of violence. The president came into office with very little grounding in international affairs, and has stuffed his administration with holdovers from the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, getting the same kind of off-the-wall, jingoist advice that doomed both previous administrations’ Muslim world policies.

Islam, as I said, is a both a private- and public-sphere religion. These days most Muslims are channeling their grievances against America or their own governments in the public sphere through the democratic process. They’re engaged in democratic movements and, when permitted, pushing their agendas through the electoral process. It signals a dramatic and healthy evolution of these movements since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their watchword was “Islamic revolution.” Those days some of my Islamist acquaintances in Pakistan and Bangladesh espoused armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam” at home and abroad.

Among them is Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, now on the death row for his alleged involvement in the killing of Bangladeshi independence activists in 1971. I met him in 2003 after the Jamaat had won the second-largest number of seats in a Bangladeshi parliamentary election, catapulting him to the post of industries minister.

His sparsely furnished office was tucked away in the Motijheel business district in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Did the Jamaat “still believed in armed struggle?” I asked.

He smiled, and instead of answering my question directly, he said, “Democracy is the best tool for us to spread the message of Islam.”

Because Islamic spirit and values are spreading quite rapidly in most Muslim countries, mainstream Islamists everywhere have come to believe that they no longer need violent methods to pursue their Islamization agenda. They’re avidly participating in democratic activism.

A second group of Islamists, known as terrorists, continue armed struggle to achieve their goals. They’re generally focused on resisting occupation and aggression by armed opponents. They include Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Kashmir, Riadus Salikin and the Islamic International Brigade in Chechnya, the ETIM in China’s Xinjiang province, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and so on. All these terrorist groups see themselves fighting to liberate their peoples from foreign occupation or defend them against domestic persecution.

Obama was talking, specifically, about the Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The IS emerged to defend Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who suffered horrible persecution and ethnic cleansing from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite governments and Shiite militias and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. As many other terrorist groups do, the IS also has engaged in gruesome slaughter and brutal persecution of innocent civilians. The world shouldn’t tolerate such crimes.

The fact remains, however, that these terrorist groups have been fighting for political, not religious, causes. They’re inspired or instigated by political and social grievances, not by the Quran or some “distorted ideology” based on it. Whether their causes or methods of operation are justified (Nobody would justify the slaughter of innocent people), is another matter.

 

Afghans show door to blind hegemon

“Fools!”

Tunu was talking about American troops in Afghanistan.

“Why were they spilling all this blood – ours and theirs?”

Now a shoe store owner, he had joined the Pakistani Taliban four years ago and fought NATO troops in Afghanistan for two. He was commenting on President Obama’s decision last month to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

A relative of mine, Tunu was visiting me and my ailing mother, 94, at the Osmani Hospital here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I was busy caring for my bedridden mother and couldn’t engage in a political conversation. I told him that his question was a good one for my next blog post. I agreed, however, not to mention his full name in it. The pro-American, terrorist-hunting government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed could go after him.

So why were American troops “spilling all this blood” in Afghanistan? Tunu didn’t know much about the American political system and focused his anger on U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, not those who sent them to do the fighting.

In 1996 I met a group of Arab post-graduate and undergrad students at a hangout on London’s Seven Sisters Road. They obviously knew about the process in which decisions about war and peace are made in Washington.  As I mentioned in a subsequent newspaper column, two of them – both Saudi Arabian – used that knowledge to support militant attacks on American government targets and, more amazingly, American civilians!

Their argument: American voters elect their governments who had imposed the devastating sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Kuwait war that had killed half a million Iraqi children. Elected American governments, they continued, supported “Israeli colonialism” and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The United States armed and protected  autocratic “monsters” repressing Arab societies. And so on. Why kill the “poor, black soldiers,” asked one of the Saudis, who had joined the American armed forces “to feed their families”?

I remembered their argument 10 years later when Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, said the United States and Iraq would have been spared the horrors of the uncalled for Iraq war if children of those who had decided to invade that country had been sent into the battlefields. Only 2 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress had their children in military services. The decorated Korean War veteran added that in 2004, 70 percent of New York City volunteers who enlisted in U.S. armed services were “black or Hispanic, recruited from lower-income communities.”

It all is true, but Americans are doing what most hegemonic powers have done throughout history – be they the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Brits or Soviets. They’ve used their superior military power to conquer, slaughter, plunder, subjugate and dominate other peoples. Some of those adventures have been stupid because power tends not only to corrupt people but also often blind them to reality.

In Afghanistan, Americans didn’t see – or want to see – the fate of other invaders to that country from the Greeks to the Brits to the Soviets. They were all defeated or expelled by the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun tribes. Power has even blinded many Americans to themselves and their deeds.  They went about invading sovereign nations and overthrowing and sabotaging governments with abandon. They slaughtered and brutalized other people and bribed and bullied their governments. Through all this they saw themselves as “peace-loving” do-gooders, spreading freedom and democracy around the world.

There’s a tried-and-true cure for this blindness: resistance and exhaustion. Few aggressive military powers have ever heeded moral suasion, but all have eventually been tamed by the resistance of the victims of their aggression and the exhaustion of their own military or economic power.  Without stubborn native resistance, the French wouldn’t have let go of their Algerian “department”; neither would the Soviets have fled Afghanistan. Hadn’t the Nazis crushed its economy, imperial Britain wouldn’t have conceded the independence of my native Indian subcontinent.

The Afghanistan war was doomed before it started because of the Afghans’ historic spirit of intolerance of foreign invaders. Their spirit of independence, as that of many other peoples, has been whetted further by the tide of freedom and democracy rising throughout the developing world.

The American economy, though still the word’s largest, has lost its vitality and dynamism. Administration spin-doctors would have us believe otherwise. They claim the economy is back on track after a temporary “Great Recession.”  They try to buttress their argument by citing the slow rise in employment rates, improvements in home prices and housing starts, the upswing in the stock market, and so on.

All these indices camouflage the deep and seemingly irreversible downturn in the American economy. America is saddled with a $17 trillion debt burden, while its GDP growth is anemic (2.4%). About 70 percent of goods on American store shelves have been made abroad. It means that the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Pacific Islanders, and other foreigners fill 7 out of 10 job openings created by the U.S. economy. The stock market boom is profiting mostly the top 1 percent society, while workers’ real wages have fallen to their lowest shares of national income in more than 50 years.   America just can no longer afford to fund the Afghanistan war, or any other war of choice.

Tunu should know that Obama ordered the total pullout American troops from Afghanistan because of the two main reasons that have historically stopped hegemonic aggression: exhaustion of the hegemons and resistance from the victims of their aggression.

  • Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.

Women in the West’s blind spot

‘Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women?’ PovertyMatters blog, The Guardian, London (link below).

I DON’T THINK “the world,” which essentially means America and Europe, is ignoring the travails of Arab or Muslim women per se. After all, when the Taliban attacked the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yusufzai, the West made her an international celebrity and hero. The spectacle was focused, however, on the suppression of women by the Taliban and other forces that were hostile to America and its invasion of Muslim countries. 

Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries are among the worst victims of male repression and misogyny. Yet how much concern have American politicians, journalists, intellectuals – or feminists – shown about their tribulations?

And what about Hindu women in India?  Misogyny has been endemic in the mostly Hindu Indian society.  Women are being raped and persecuted with abandon in much of India. Indian politicians and law enforcement agencies never took their suffering and humiliation seriously until recent media publicity forced them to try to do something about it.  Indian women’s ordeal, as that of women in the Middle East, has largely been ignored by “the world.”

The misfortunes of women in those societies are America’s and the West’s friendly ties to their governments.   You wouldn’t see moral issues getting in the way of  “the world’” coddling governments and other actors who serve Western interests.  Moral concerns are pressed into the service of those interests when they’re threatened by the West’s enemies, albeit if those enemies also happen to be trampling women’s rights or human rights.  And wittingly or unwittingly, Western intelligentsia  – conservatives, liberals, feminists, and so forth – follow the flag.

Remember Laura Bush’s women rights campaign in Afghanistan after her hubby invaded and occupied that poor country?  Indeed American feminists showed great concerns (mostly well-meaning, I believe) about the fate of those women if the United States had to transfer power to the misogynists who dominate the Afghan political class.  I’m not hearing those concerns voiced (or I’m not reading the publications where they are)  since the Obama administration announced its plans to end the occupation of Afghnistan.

Many Americans and Westerners would indeed like  to help women under suppression in old and traditional societies – but only when Western  interests don’t get in the way.

The Guardian blog post:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/dec/02/world-ignore-violence-against-arab-women

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘What Freedom?’

 

 

 

Saudi women drive toward freedom

WASHINGTON – Kudos to the brave Saudi Arabian women for their protest against the ban on their driving. The prohibition was decreed by their ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics, and is being enforced by the Saudi royal family. As I’ve learned from several trips to the kingdom, Saudi women have long been chafing under the worst kind of social and official suppression anywhere in the world.

Today a group of Saudi women has hit the roads behind the wheels of their cars, in brazen defiance of the misogynist law. Earlier, they collected some 1,700 signatures on a petition demanding the abolition of the driving ban.

I heard a pundit on an American radio talk show saying the women’s driving issue had confronted the Saudi monarchy with “the delicate task of balancing the women’s demand against Islamic law.” Indeed many non-Muslims and some Muslims think Islam forbids women to drive. I’ve long been waiting to hear an Islamic scholar tell me where in the Quran women are instructed not to drive automobiles.

Early Arab Muslim women, including the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and his associates, were much freer than their 21st century Saudi Arabian daughters. In fact the Prophet’s wife Ayesha rode a camel (when there were no automobiles anywhere in the world) to command her troops in a historic battle – the Battle of the Camels – against Caliph Ali. She also used to address public gatherings.

The caging of women is part of the Arab tribal – not Islamic – tradition. It acquired “Islamic” legitimacy in the 18th century when the obscurantist, but widely popular, Arab Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab sanctioned this traditional Arab prohibition against women’s outdoor activities. Abdul Wahhab endorsed many other Arab misogynist tribal mores. The founder of the Saudi state and monarchy, Muhammad Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, needed Abdul Wahhab’s blessings to build his support base and military campaigns to set up his kingdom. He made the Wahhabi creed the bedrock of the Saudi legal system.

The Wahhabi legal code, besides suppressing women’s rights, prohibits public protests against the ruling dynasty. It imposes inhuman punishment for often-minor infraction of other draconian Saudi laws. Thus the Wahhabi (or Salafi) code has come in handy for the monarchy to suppress dissent and rule the kingdom with an iron hand.

Most citizens of the kingdom don’t dare to make critical comments to strangers about the tyranny and massive corruption of the rulers and other members of the House of Saud. Typical was the reaction of a roomful of academics when, during a 1995 trip, I asked them about the conduct of the royals abroad.

About a dozen professors of the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah had been invited by one of their colleagues (whom I had known before) to meet me over tea. Responding to my inquiries, some of them made oblique remarks against some government policies. One of them even blamed the “advisers” of then King Fahd for the kingdom’s participation in the U.S.-led war against the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He made a reference to Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders to make a point. I had never heard any Saudi citizen inside Saudi Arabia voice dissent against the monarchy. Encouraged by what I thought their assertion of a measure of academic independence, I asked if they had read in that Woodward book a reference to then crown prince Fahd’s orgies. The writer had cited CIA documents to narrate Fahd’s daylong rendezvous with teenage American girls in his royal aircraft.

Pin-drop silence descended in the room.

Later when I asked their views about instances of massive corruption in the House of Saud, my host changed the subject. Others began quizzing me about the “hypocritical” U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestinians, treatment of Muslim minorities in the West, and so forth. I realized “academic freedom” could go only so far in Saudi Arabia. Since then I found out, during three research trips, that Arab intelligentsia in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates under the Al Nahyan monarchy were just as tight-lipped about the repression of their tyrannical regimes.

But of all Muslim societies in the world, Saudi Arabia has been the most misogynist. You meet a woman at a bank waiting space in Jeddah. She’s covered up from head to ankles, except her eyes, hands and feet. You don’t know who she is or what she looks like but can see her complexion and guess her age from a glance at her feet and hands. When she learns that you’re an America researcher, she’s shows an interest in talking with you.

Outside the bank she answers your questions, getting off her chest the long-suppressed anguish against regime oppression, social strictures on women, family violence, and so forth. Her narrative of Saudi misogyny and other social prejudices is the most candid and illuminating you get in Saudi Arabia. Her candor comes from her anonymity. Unlike the academics or businessmen you interviewed, you can’t see her or know her identity. You don’t ask her identity if you want her uninhibited views, and she won’t disclose it even if asked.

More recent reports from Saudi Arabia suggest that things are changing dramatically there since the onset of the Arab Spring. Saudi women – and men – are showing unprecedented yearning for freedom. Women’s public challenge today to the government’s – and the religious establishment’s – long-standing driving ban shows that many women in the kingdom no longer require anonymity to vent their rage against male suppression.

Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog ‘What Freedom’ and an international affairs columnist in Washington

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Syria ‘extremists’ scare off U.S.?

 The Obama administration knows by now that Russia will not let any action against the murderous Syrian dictatorship get the green light from the U.N. Security Council.  In response, the administration is taking baby steps to help the Syrian uprising, dedicated to overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

These steps include sharing intelligence with the rebels and increasing the supply of communications gear.  The administration is still unwilling to provide the rebels with heavy arms or help create a “safety zone” in Syria. The main reason, as anonymous White House aides tell the media, is the feat that “extremists” could rise to dominate post-Assad Syria.

The Assad regime will go sooner or later, but the United States needs to be seen actively supporting the Syrian opposition for its own interests.  The Arab Spring is drawing the curtain on the era when America dominated the Middle East by standing on the shoulders of tyrannical dictators and monarchs.   In the years ahead, the security of American interests in that region will depend on the goodwill of its populist and democratic Arab forces.

Besides the Islamist bugbear, a pie-in-the-sky desire to choreograph Syria’s political future is hobbling active American support for the opposition. It’s a lingering Cold War mentality, which the administration shares with many American scholars and experts on the Middle East.

These experts included most of the panelists at a  seminar on  Capitol Hill in Washington on the Syrian crisis. They sounded the alarm that American arms and aid could fall into the hands of Salafists and other “extremists.”  And they called for a strategy that would help set up a secular, pluralist democratic regime in Syria. The lone dissenting voice on the panel was that of my friend Leon Hadar. I have always admired his insights.  Hadar advised against “trying to micromanage” Syrian politics over which Americans would have “no control.”

The seminar was organized by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, and it reminded me of another forum the MEPC had hosted on the Hill during the run-up to the Iraq war.  At that 2003 seminar, too, most of the panelists explored options to make sure secular democracy thrives in Iraq after the dictator Saddam Hussein was  overthrown.  The proposed options included bolstering Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. As we found out later Chalabi or his INC had no foothold inside Iraq. Thanks to his neocon promoters, however, the INC reaped millions of American tax dollars for its non-existent democratic movement in Iraq.

Interestingly, this week’s Capitol Hill panel included a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Radwan Ziadeh, who admitted that his anti-Assad group hasn’t gained much public support in Syria. He blamed it on the insufficiency of foreign assistance and asked for  $45 million in monthly aid.

In any case, the assumption behind the thrust of the experts’ arguments about Syria this week was the same as those about Iraq nine years ago:  Secular Arab democrats would ally with American and Israeli secular democracies, while Islamists would oppose them.  Obviously, America’s bitter experience in Iraq has made little contribution to the thinking of these experts.  In Iraq, the U.S. invasion has turned a staunchly secular autocracy into a pseudo-democratic theocracy. It has transformed an implacably anti-Iranian regime into one that is allied to Iran, America’s and Israel’s archenemy in the Middle East.

It’s about time American policy makers and intellectuals review the myth that Islamists or Muslim “extremists” are innately anti-American.  Sunni Muslim “extremist” Mujahedeen fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were America’s allies during the 1980s war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In Iraq, Shiite Muslim “extremist” Mahdi Army militia joined the American battle to overthrow the Saddam regime.

Muslim political activism, secularist or Islamist, revolves around what the activists believe to be the interest of their societies or communities.  Bin Laden, who sided with the United States in the anti-Soviet Afghan war, sponsored the 9/11 attacks on America because he and other Saudi Islamists were  outraged by the deployment of American troops  in Saudi Arabia, following the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.  I learned this during two research trips to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s .  Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps reminding his American interlocutors that 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001, plane hijackers were Saudis.

Many Arabs resent America’s wishy-washy role in the Arab Spring and continued support for repressive autocracies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.   They see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit with Egypt’s Islamist President Muhammad Mursi as recognition of a fait accompli. The administration should reverse course on Syria and get on with organizing international action outside the United Nations to rid Syria of its monstrous dictatorship.

The effort should be conducted through the Friends of Syria group and begin with supplying the rebels with heavy arms and other necessary equipment through the Saudis, Qataris and others.  A safe haven for the rebels and civilian refugees should be created inside Syria alongside its Turkish border, under NATO air cover.  The campaign against the Syrian regime will require outside financial assistance, which should be provided to opposition forces struggling in Syria, and not to organizations outside.

Meanwhile, in the interest of better understanding between America and Islam, U.S. policy makers should revisit the main lesson from U.S. experience in the Muslim world.   Muslims, secular and Islamist, have no quarrel with America when its policies accommodate their interests. They resist, often to the bitter end, those American policies and actions that hurt their interests and their dignity.

  •  Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog site Beyond Freedom