Friday, March 2, 2012

Religious conflict and sacrifice for Wahhabism

If you have spare time to read the news about trivial things such as traffic accidents in Saudi Arabia, don’t be so shocked.

It is quite common to read stories about small underage Wahabi boys driving cars while their mothers sit beside them. It is common to see boys behind the steering wheel since their mothers, no matter how intelligent, are not allowed to drive, according to their religion.

Along with other thousands of similar incomprehensible incidents, these types of stories offer bitter proof of how Wahhabism, a radical Islamic school of thought that is the dominant religious teaching in Saudi Arabia, is legally practiced.

In a society dominated by men, women have become the prisoners of ignorant clerics. God’s creation of women as intelligent people is viewed as a temptation that must be tamed oppressively.

Furthermore, in the dominant religious sect, which was initially propagated by Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab in the 18th century and later continued by his descendants, women have been positioned as legally weaker than men and are — as Fatima Mernissi defined their roles sexually among Moroccan Muslims — more as the creatures of senses and passions. They therefore must be put under men’s control if things are to be run on the straight path.

Historically, Wahhabism was a “political” school of Islamic thought that played a pivotal role in shaping the current dynasty and monarchy established initially by Muhammad bin Saud, together with the religious leader Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, in 1744. Saud’s descendant, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, in 1932, after recurrent bloody battles with the Ottomans, successfully took control over the Arabian peninsula and its tribes.

With the victory, his royal family ran the new born kingdom together with al-Wahhab’s family, known as Al ash-Sheikh, the family that manages all things related to religious affairs.

Islam, therefore, has historically been very political since the beginning. The concept of “jihad”, for example, has been interpreted politically as any endeavor not only to establish a Muslim community, but more, in the Saudi Arabian context, to put up a monarch led by the royal family with the Al ash-Sheikh as its godly custodian.

The use of Islamic symbols to maintain the status quo was then clearly seen in the way Islamic affairs are conducted. King Fahd and his successor, for example, positioned themselves as Khadim al-Haramayn al-Syarifayn, the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques, the center for Muslim rituals all over the world.

Equally, with the political authority they have, Islamic affairs are then administered according to dominant beliefs and jurisprudences.

With the historical and political blend, the face and substance of Islam in the Wahhabi region is surely far from democratic or equal. On the surface, Islam is a set of strict doctrines that are authorized by the Al as-Sheikh family. Rules and regulations are made based on religious edicts instead of real needs or scientific findings.

That’s why, as the above story tells us, a car accident because of a child’s driving is taken as something ordinary, however painful it might be logically and rationally.

What a man should do, however trivial it is, is convicted to have been written in the sacred texts which are revealed trough the tongues of the clerics.

Related to the Indonesian context, we have to face the effects of what Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi social thinker living in London, says as “struggling in the way of God abroad”.

With the weight of maintaining the status quo politically, religious “jihad”, however violent it might be, can be done abroad but not in Saudi Arabia itself.

In other words, the royal rulers together with the religious holders have shrewdly channeled the people’s passion to disseminate and materialize their radical religious thoughts in other countries since everything in their homeland must be taken as done and final. It is the Muslims of other countries who need religious propagations and to be changed.

As we can see in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries, wahhabisation has been going on for a long time in Indonesia. With the remnants of petrodollars, in terms of religious alms, individuals or organizations can establish foundations, schools, or mosques as long as they meet the terms and conditions defined by the Wahhabis stakeholders.

Alas, things with religious attributes are so easily taken for granted. With their need of cash flow, for example, religious leaders can pass over social facts such as local traditions, social harmony, or traditional diversity.

Worse, to those with less social sensibilities, certain radical teachings, such as the pro-violent interpretation of jihad, are at once faithfully taken into account.

If we then look at how the current ruling parties in Indonesia are exploiting Islamic issues, we might come to a similar conclusion politically.

At an extreme point, organizations like the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) have actually been founded for political reasons. With their historical footprints for being close to military forces or policemen, those organizations function as Wahhabis groups do in Saudi Arabia.

They exist because they are needed for maintaining the status quo. Channeling their radical religious passion is a rational choice to camouflage the rulers’ political wishes and to defeat oppositions through a divide-and-rule method. Are the rulers really concerned with religious affairs or religiosity? Nobody knows indisputably!

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.

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