Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Dueling crackdowns 

(Note: This seemed a lot more coherent when I wrote it. Now it strikes me as a little disjointed, oversimplified, and not nearly fleshed-out enough. A nice illustration of the hazards of blogging while very tired. This is something to rework and expand another day, perhaps, because I think the main theme, the struggle for the soul of Islam, is one that needs more attention.)

Two headlines today illustrate the Islamic "civil war" perfectly:

Saudi Arabia suspends 900 imams

Saudi detentions aim to rein in reformists-analysts

Don't assume that both of these acts were carried out by a unified Saudi government. There is a tug-of-war going on within Saudi Arabia, and in the Islamic world as a whole, between the die-hard religious conservatives and the relatively moderate elements of society. The detentions of reformists were most likely done under the auspices of Prince Nayef's security forces, while the suspensions of imams probably happened as a result of higher orders--from Nayef's half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah.

I will spare you the details of the Saudi power struggle. If you want details, this is a good place to start. In a nutshell, King Fahd is incapacited, but not dead, and until he passes, Crown Prince Abdullah is ostensibly in charge. But his half-brother Nayef controls the secret police and religious institutions. The two have been at odds, not only concerning their areas of influence in society, but over the succession to the throne. Abullah tends toward gradual reform and modernization, while Nayef comes down on the side of the religious authorities and the status quo. It is far from clear which of the two will emerge victorious.

The personal struggle between these two Saudi princes is truly the Islamic world writ small. This struggle is going on in such widely separated areas as North Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. (Not to mention Afghanistan and much of Central Asia.) In some places, the mullahs hold power over society, and are opposed by a majority of the people, who are fed up with repression. In others, religious conservatives are trying to gain back power from secular rulers. (Or, in the case of Iraq, they are trying to keep secular, democratic leaders from gaining power in the first place.)

All of these countries, and a few others, represent individual fronts in a simmering civil war that stretches across the entire Arab region and into the neighboring Persian and Turkic areas of the larger Islamic world. "Civil war" may sound like an unnecessarily strong phrase, but keep in mind that Islamic fundamentalists have carried out bombings across this entire region, except for in Iran, where the fundamentalists are already in charge. The fundamentalists have attempted assassinations of secular rulers on more than one occasion. Fortunately, none have succeeded since Egypt's Anwar Sadat was killed by Muslim Brothers in 1981.

But across the whole region, the struggle continues. Where the fundamentalists hold power, they are fighting like hell to keep it. In other places, they are trying to terrorize their way into power. As the Islamic holy land, Saudi Arabia is a country all Muslims look to for an example--and it presently shows a confusing, two-headed nature to its neighbors. The outcome of the Saudi power struggle will have far-reaching consequences throughout the Middle East.

The outcome of the Muslim civil war is vital to the United States because we're in it. Terrorist acts against the United States and the West are simply new fronts in the Muslim civil war, meant to strike at the supporters of secular Muslim rulers, and to gain support for the fundamentalists among the Muslim "street."

It is clear which side we're on in this war, and it will not end until the fundamentalist, anti-modern side is ultimately defeated. We owe it to ourselves and to the Muslim people of the Middle East to see this fight through to victory.
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