Leave Revolution in Saudi Arabia to the Saudis
by Amir Butler
January 7, 2004

In November 2003, George W. Bush described what he termed the third pillar of America's security: "global democratic revolution." If Iraq and Afghanistan were the first "beneficiaries" of this revolution, then it seems almost certain that Saudi Arabia will feature somewhere in Bush's revolutionary plans.

The post-September 11 story goes that Saudi Arabia is the ideological and financial underpinning for global terrorism and therefore the only way to secure America is to liberalize and secularize Saudi Arabia.

That such an accusation should be made now nearly 80 years after the modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded -- is strange. Saudi Arabia has been run on effectively the same ideological line since its inception. Throughout that time, Americans have been involved in most all aspects of Saudi society including the education system and no such claims were ever made. In fact, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been a mutually beneficial and friendly one. Although most Americans wouldn't necessarily agree with the practices or policies of the Kingdom, the fact remains that there has been little criticism from those who have lived or worked in the country.

However, Saudi Arabia is not America. It was founded on the basis of Islam and Islam has provided the guiding principles for the nation. The idea that religion should be separated from the affairs of the state is viewed as a heresy. In Islam secularism equates with apostasy a fact that clearly shows the fallacy and dangerousness of George W. Bush's messianic vision of democratizing the region.

For the visitor to Riyadh, the first thing that he will see when exiting King Khalid International Airport is the airport mosque. The architecturally magnificent mosque, with its dome, minarets and ornate structure, alongside a modern airport provides a powerful symbolism for Saudi Arabia's fusion of the technology of the modern world with religion.

Indeed, mosques are everywhere in the Kingdom. Literally. Stand in any Riyadh suburb and you can see, dotting the skyline, at least four or five of the green lights that identify the minarets. Wait for the time of prayer and one can hear the call to prayer reverberating through the air from not one, but perhaps dozens, of mosques. Travel outside the cities, and most every service station is accompanied by a mosque.

Alongside the roads are signs exhorting travelers to "remember Allah," "give thanks to Allah," and "glorify Allah." Board any Saudi airline and the pilot will begin by reading the prayer for traveling. When the plane lands at its destination, gratitude is given to God for delivering them safely.

Whereas we in the West are accustomed to seeing the latest throwaway pop star attract thousands of young people, in Saudi Arabia the ones who draw the big crowds and command the most respect amongst the youth are the Islamic scholars and speakers.

The Saudi people are religious even though no-one would identify himself as such. Praying five times a day in a mosque; sending one's children to learn Qur'an; believing absolutely in one's faith; and living one's life according to the rules of Islam is normal. It's part of their national identity. The problem is that for many in the West, such devotion to religion is seen as extreme and disturbing.

Despite these realities, the Saudi people are being compared to the Iraqi people as people struggling under the yoke of some hated oppressor. Saudi Arabia is not Iraq. What criticism exists amongst ordinary Saudis for their government exists only because they see their government as not being sufficiently Islamic and not assertive enough in its relationship with America.

The fundamental issue for Saudis is not whether their government is a democracy or a monarchy; the fundamental issue is to what extent their government is implementing Islamic law in both its domestic and foreign affairs. A replacement of their Islamic government with a secular government isn't what they hope for, it's what they fear.

That the President of the United States should believe that democracy and secularism should and can be imposed upon Saudi society points to a fundamental disconnect between America's ambitions and the nature of human societies. It also points to the hubris that has overtaken American foreign policy.

Societies can't be changed by force or revolution, and it speaks ill of the government's claimed conservatism that they don't know this. Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, wrote over 200 years ago: "The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition of direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs."

He wrote this with regards to French Revolution, so what then of a revolution that is being imposed by a foreign government that is viewed throughout the Muslim world as being irredeemably hostile towards Islam and Muslims?

Those Muslims who fight America do so believing they are defending Islam. If America continues to interfere in the affairs of Saudi Arabia, attempting to bully the government towards secularism and liberalism, it will have an opposite effect to what is intended. America's security doesn't lie in proving Bin Laden's claims of a war against Islam as being true; America's security lies in proving Bin Laden wrong by leaving the Muslim world to choose their own destiny, in their own time and in their own way.

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Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC).

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