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.