Saudi Arablia: reconciling tradition with modernity.

The Saudi regime’s main criterion for success in balancing their traditional religious values with modernization has been holding on to power. To ensure their survival as rulers of Saudi Arabia, the ruling faction of the Al-Saud family have harnessed advances in technology and embraced new techniques of governance. These transformations, which have been largely facilitated by the enormous wealth that the discovery of oil has brought, have, at times, brought the regime into conflict with representatives of religious tradition, or orthodoxy. The regime’s close relationship with, and patronage of Islam as ‘Guardian’s of the Holy Cities’, drawing on popular traditions, has resulted in a society steeped in Islam, which is drawn on as a source of legitimacy. Islam as a rallying force beyond narrow tribal allegiances, played a vital role in Abdel Aziz ibn-Saud’s formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Later, the promotion of Islam was used to counter the threat to the rule of the Al-Saud posed by Arab nationalism and communism, secular ideologies which threatened their rule. Throughout the twentieth century religious leaders, and adherents, objected to the introduction of modern innovations such as the telegraph, the radio, and the television, but, until recently, religious representatives have not questioned the legitimacy of the regime. The threat to the House of Al-Saud posed by what has been labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, has been caused by a number of factors, not least the pronounced difference in wealth between the ruling princes and the rest of the population. In the absence of alternative political outlets, Islam has provided the idiom for revolution in Saudi Arabia.

The precise definitions of modernity and modernization are keenly disputed, especially in the Islamic context. Hopwood offers one:
‘Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life – railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural process set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’
This definition is insufficient, as it fails to recognise the modernizing effect of advances in technology. For example an “artefact of contemporary life” like the internet can give rise to “new ideas”. Likewise, a transition to mass literacy falls into the lacuna. Thus, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to draw a distinction between the terms “modernity” and “modernization”. A more adequate working definition, to be used in this paper, is supplied by the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary’ where the term “modern” encompasses both meanings:
“of, or relating to the present or to recent times; characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, equipment, etc; denoting a recent style in art, architecture, etc, marked by a departure from traditional styles and values ”.

A common presumption made in Western discourse is that modernisation of Islamic societies amounts to a convergence with Western norms. In such a dialectic, Islam is taken as the tradition in opposition to the modern secular forces of liberal-western democracies. This leads to frequent description of Islam as a conservative force particularly within Saudi society . This view downplays the extent to which interpretations of Islam, based on the same sources, have varied considerably throughout its 1,400 year history. Especially in a situation where
“Islam lacks a single canonical authority or a fixed story that holds together all the elements of a religion such as Christianity and imparts to them legitimacy .”

Therefore, to characterise all manifestations of Islam as simply “traditional” is misleading. In fact this paper posits that the forces of Islam emerging in Saudi Arabia are “modern”. Saudi society has radically changed since the Second World War and Islam has responded to meet the fears, desires and aspirations that living in such an altered society entails.


The writings and practices of Muhammad Abdel Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a religious scholar brought up in the Hanbalite school , have given rise to the description Wahhabi , the “traditional religious value” of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab repudiated what he viewed as heretical practices such as saint veneration, a common practice among Shi’a, and exalted the doctrine of tawhid – “God’s uniqueness as omnipotent lord of creation and his uniqueness as deserving worship and the absolute devotion of his servants ”.

In 1744 Al-Wahhab entered into an accord with the tribal lord Muhammad Al-Saud. The politico-religious alliance generated vast conquests as previously warring tribes were united under the banner of Islam. In exchange for ideological justification and recruits for the conquests, shari’a, religious law, as interpreted by the ulama, the religious scholars, was imposed on the territories. In his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler (the imam – the commander of the faithful) should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion . Al-Wahhab also appointed the mutawia, who served as the enforcers of justice and were financed by the public treasury. The mutawia enforced a strict system of orthodoxy where repeated abstention from public prayers invited reprimand or penalty . Beyond the zakat, the mandatory religious tax of just 2.5%, and the payment of the mutawia and ulama, Al-Wahhab could not have envisioned a radical redistribution of the assets of the state, including the booty gained through conquests. Al-Wahhab’s pre-modern interpretation of Islam certainly did not envision the state performing a ‘welfarist’ role.

The Wahhabist tradition of government envisions a divide within the state between the religious and the temporal domains. In practice, the balance of power was eschewed in favour of the charismatic figure of Al-Wahhab and “it was said that no camels were mounted and no opinions were voiced by Muhammad Al-Saud or his son Abdel Al-Aziz without his [Al-Wahhab’s] approval ”. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has persisted with the Wahhabist template but a shift in the balance of power has seen the temporal authorities, bolstered by oil wealth, largely dictate to the ulama. This has led Lackner to opine that “the fiction of Wahhabism which has lost its real roots with the destruction of the age old desert culture can only be maintained by an intellectual petrification ”.

The Ikhwan

In order to understand the extent to which the Al-Saud draw legitimacy from traditional religious values it is necessary to examine the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Ibn-Saud began life as an exile in Kuwait, as the Al-Saud clan had been superseded by other forces in their Najd heartland. In 1902 he set off on a legendary expedition, with a handful of men, and captured Riyadh where the ulama swore allegiance to him. Although the original Al-Saud empire had disintegrated, the Wahhabi tradition had continued to flourish in Arabia. The remaining mutawia “needed a politico-military figure, a symbolic Imam to endorse their cause ”. Consequently
“Ibn Saud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid them their salaries in cash and kind… In return [he] was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian peninsula under the guise of submission to God .”

In collaboration with the mutawia, Ibn-Saud created an altogether new force, the Ikhwan. Beginning in 1912, settlements were created for the Islamic indoctrination of nomadic Bedouin. This provided Ibn-Saud with “an ascetic, military force which could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly and which combined the mobility of the Bedouin with the political reliability and loyalty of the villagers ”. This new force played a vital role in Ibn-Saud’s conquest of what was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, including the Hijaz, which contains the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Renowned for ferocity, the threat of the Ikhwan, ready to be unleashed against Mecca, was sufficient to bring about its surrender .

The formation of Saudi Arabia represented an acceptance of the modern order of the nation state. This led to conflict with the Ikhwan who, already suspicious of the introduction of modern technology, wished to continue what they viewed as a jihad against infidels. As a result, an uprising occurred in 1928 that was suppressed by the forces of Ibn-Saud, who was supported by the British, irked by Ikhwan raids on their Iraqi colony. Crucial to Ibn Saud’s victory over the Ikhwan was the support of the ulama who ruled that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler .

The ulama’s support for Ibn Saud signalled their submission to him as it had
“became clear to those distinguished among them that if they were to play a role in the country they would have to accept the subordination of religion to politics. They also understood that their eminence was dependent on restraining their former students, the mutawia ”

Thus, the ulama were co-opted by the regime, a process that would become more pronounced under Ibn-Saud’s son Faysal. Consequently, although the ulama were not in favour of the introduction of artefacts of modernity such as the radio and the telegraph, they accepted Ibn-Saud’s authority. Ibn-Saud had revived the Al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance but in the twentieth the religious authorities, lacking the charisma of a figure like Al-Wahhab, were subordinate to the will of the temporal ruler. Nonetheless, Ibn-Saud’s role as the imam continued to be essential to his authority. An Arab visitor to Saudi Arabia 1928 observed
“The ulama are the power that holds the sultan and his people together – the medium of control. But they seldom meddle in politics .”

King Faysal

1953 saw the death of Ibn-Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family. His sons continue to rule Saudi Arabia. The first to ascend to the throne was King Saud, who proved an inept ruler. In 1964 he was moved aside by means of a ‘Palace Coup’ which brought King Faysal to the throne. Vast oil wealth allowed Faysal to oversee a rapid expansion of the Saudi State and he is the principal architect of modern Saudi Arabia.

The period 1945-1975 witnessed a rapid modernization of Saudi society. Mass education caused a rapid transformation of the literacy rate , and controversially included women. Urbanization, and the arrival of millions of foreign migrants to work in the oil industry affected profound changes to Saudi society.

In the era of Nasser’s charismatic appeal to pan-Arabist sentiment, Faysal’s “Islamic rhetoric came to the forefront mainly as a counter discourse to current Arab political trends associated with Arab nationalism ” which “threatened the very foundation of Saudi rule. ” The threat to Faysal emanated not only from the restive Saudi population but also from within the Royal Family, where a number of ‘Republican Princes’ emerged, though these renegades were soon exiled. Faysal’s opposition to Arab nationalism led to alliance with the United States, however the United States’ close relationship with Israel began to place strains on this relationship, Tension over the Palestinian issue, led the regime to play a leading role in the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s. Nonetheless, throughout the reign of Faysal, Arab nationalism and communism were trumpeted as the main threat to the regime. Moreover, vast wealth accrued from a cordial relationship with the West dictated a symbiosis. Nonetheless, in a situation where Israel was seen as anathema to Islam and pan-Arabism, rapprochement of the sort undertaken by Sadat at Camp David would not have been feasible, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was desired.

Traditional religious forces continued to resist Faysal’s rigorous modernization programme, which included the education of women and the introduction of television, but no serious opposition movement emerged based on a defence of traditional religious values. This can be explained by a fear, amongst traditionalists, of “modern” political forces, particularly the secular force of nationalism, represented by Nasser’s Egypt, which seemed to threaten the role of religion in society, as exemplified by the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, thousands of whom were imprisoned. Therefore
“As Islam… was widely interpreted as a revolt against modernity, and as the… [monarchy was] interpreted to be more traditional and less modernized than most of the republics, there appeared to be less of an incentive, or need, to revolt against them in the name of Islam, “traditional values” and “authenticity. ”

The regime and the religious authorities viewed one another as allies against a common foe. The ulama, while displeased by certain aspects of the regime’s modernization programme, nonetheless allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime to an unprecedented degree. The establishment of the Ministry of Religion was the most important aspect of this process for it “locked the senior ulama in an official role. ”. Although, “the most uncompromising among the ulama were ousted and denied the privilege of becoming civil servants. ”. In return for co-option, religious universities were established which replaced the informal centres of learning around the mosque school. As a result, during the reign of King Faysal, religion penetrated society to an unprecedented degree. However, below the surface, interpretations of Islam were shifting beyond traditions. This was facilitated by mass literacy that eroded the traditional role of the ulama as the intermediary between the text and the predominantly illiterate people, and considerably increased the number of religious scholars. In such circumstances it became more difficult for the regime to control the interpretation of Islam. The historical parallel of the emergence of Protestantism in response to mass literacy in the Europe of the sixteenth century may be drawn.

The Post Faysal Era

The assassination of King Faysal in 1975, by a disgruntled member of the royal family removed a charismatic and effective rule. The monarchs who have followed Khalid (1975-1982) and Fahd (r.1982) have persisted with Faysal’s, pro-Western policies and emphasis on Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque and the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. However, since the 1970s Islam has become “a two edged political instrument – as the kingdom’s primary medium of self-legitimisation, and as the main venue of protest for opposition elements ”. Given that formal political protest, in the shape of political parties, has never been tolerated it is not surprising that opposition should emerge in this religious guise. Furthermore
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional and Islamic country it is natural that most opposition from dissatisfied sectors of the population would find it most appropriate to articulate their difficulties in the Islamic idiom .”

However, such Islamic opposition is a departure from Wahhabi tradition as it should be recalled that in his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion. As the regime has upheld shari’a, this is not a charge that can be levelled against them. It could be argued that western notions of the state and even Kingship, are inconsistent with Islam, both, however, were accepted in the 1920s by the ulama, the representatives of religious tradition.

“Islamic” grievances against the government emanate from two broad sources: the regime’s foreign policy and socio-economic problems afflicting Saudi society. Since the 1980s, the Islamist opposition has been highly critical of the regime’s pro-Western orientation, especially during the Gulf War. To many Saudis “the United States represents materialistic Christian values and power, which challenge Islamic values and Muslim power. ” Consequently the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War became increasingly unpopular, especially as the plight of Iraqis enduring US-led sanctions was brought home to the Saudi population. Antipathy towards the United State’s can also be explained by the United State’s support for Israel against the Palestinians . Indeed, with the demise of the Soviet Union, global Islamic discourse has tended to represent the United States as its greatest foe. In such an era of ‘globalisation’, these grievances have given rise to support for Al-Queda, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attack against the ‘Twin Towers’ were Saudis. The violent US response to September 11 has served to ratchet up anti-American sentiment, providing fertile grounds for recruitment into radical Islamist organisations. This Islamic criticism of the regime’s foreign policy contradicts the judgement of the ulama of the 1930s who asserted that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler.

The emergence of Islam as a subversive force can largely be attributed to the socio-economic problems afflicting contemporary Saudi Arabia. A rapidly expanding population and a downturn in the price of oil has created significant unemployment that today stands at around 20%. This has led to poverty that is in stark contrast to the opulence of the coterie of princes and technocrats who monopolise the vast resources of Saudi Arabia. In response to these inequalities, preachers have drawn on Islamic sources to indirectly criticise the regime. A non-Saudi Muslim scholar who visited the country during the 1980s remarked that “the sermons at Friday prayers at Mecca and Medina are filled with parables of Omar, the second caliph, who was known for simple living and humility .” Even the establishment ulama have challenged the unequal distribution of wealth; in 1991 a petition was drafted, and signed by senior ulama that argued “Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups ”. The Wahhabite tradition does not envision such redistribution and the shift in emphasis is a further example of how Islam is responding to the discontent of its adherents.

In response to Islamic criticism, the regime has suppressed opposition and renewed emphasis on Islamic legitimacy. Thus, for all important decisions, especially the decision to allow American soldiers to use Saudi Arabia as a base during the first Gulf War, fatwas, or religious rulings, have been secured. This has opened up a cleavage between the establishment ulama and radical Islamists, who have ceased to support the current system. The regime has also attempted, by the establishment of a consultative council in 1994, to use the often Western-educated middle class technocrats as a counterweight to recalcitrant Islamists.

As has been mentioned, mass literacy has given rise to a population with personal access to the texts of Islam. The availability of the internet further erodes the establishment ulama’s interpretative authority. As
the very testing of authority that the internet provokes makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and subject to change than those of it predecessors .

London based organisation like the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (1993) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (1996) have used the internet to challenge the authority of both the regime and the establishment ulama. These organisations have called for fundamental changes to Saudi society. Indeed Al-Faqih, one of the new leaders, has argued in favour of a rule by religious scholars that has been compared to the Iranian model of the velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious jurist) . To view these organisations, that harness modern technological innovation and who argue for a change to the Wahhabist system of government as representatives of “traditional religious values” is to fail to recognise the modernisation of Saudi Islam.


Islamic legitimacy was of critical importance to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Al-Saud family as rulers, especially when confronted by the threat of Arab nationalism. The regime drew from the Wahhabist template that emphasised loyalty to the ruler. During the first fifty years of the state, the regime maintained a delicate balance between the traditional religious values, and modernization. At times, this caused resentment, but with the exception of the Ikhwan rebellion, no large-scale movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic legitimacy. This can be explained by the state’s patronage of the ulama and maintenance of shari’a, as well as the Islamist’s fear of modern, anti-secular forces However, since the death of King Faysal, Islam has provided an outlet for opposition.

Much Western commentary on Saudi Arabia often simplistically portrays Islam as representing traditional forces within Saudi society. It assumes the immutability of Islam, and fails to take into account how the radical transformation of Saudi society, which has seen a predominantly poor and nomadic people become urban and relatively wealthy, has coloured interpretations of Islam. Mass literacy, has diminished the interpretative authority of the establishment ulama who are no longer the sole intermediaries between the text and the people. This process has been accelerated by the internet, which is now the main forum for protest against the regime. Since the 1980s, a declining economy and reliance on the United States have led to rising discontent with the regime. In a country, steeped in religion, that suppresses all political opposition, Islam has modernized to become the channel and idiom for this discontent.

Today, the House of Saud stands at a difficult crossroads. King Fahd, has been invalided by a stroke while the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abdullah, is in his eighties. The prospect of a succession crisis looms. Such a crisis could see rival factions emerging from within the House, one representing radical Islamic views, drawing on support from the economically marginalised, the other a secularist outlook, supported in the main by the technocratic bourgeoise. Neither the secularists nor the Islamic radicals favour the continuance of the status quo and the quid pro quo for support from either side would probably be a check on the autocratic rule of the Al-Saud Family.



Abir, M. Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis. London, 1993
Cooper, John (editor): Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond. London 1998
Habib, J. Ibn Saud’s Warriors of Islam. Leiden, 1978
Hoover, S. and Schofield-Clark, L. (editors) Practising Religion in the Age of Media – Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture. Columbia, 2002
Jerichow, A. The Saudi File: People, power and politics. London, 1997
Kostiner, J. (editor) The Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity. Boulder-Colorado, 2000
Lackner, H A House Built on Sand: a political economy of Saudi Arabia. London 1982
Al-Rasheed, Madawi A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, 2002


Bligh, A ‘The Saudi Religious Elite as Participants in the Political System’ International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 17, 1985
Dekmejian, H. R. ‘The Rise of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia’ in Middle East Journal 48 (1994) and ‘Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council’ in Middle East Journal 52 (1998)
Albright, Madelein ‘Greed that feeds terror’ in The Guardian, November 27, 2003

Other Sources
BBC Radio 4 ‘Crossing Continents’ 8/12/2003

(essay, 2004)

The origins of Likud Ideology

The origins of Likud Ideology

(Published in Village Magazine, December, 2014)

It has been said that there are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.

The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left approximately 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast destruction in its wake; just over 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.

To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, they have since returned to power under the enduring figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, especially in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian case was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq before the first Gulf War.

But despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries as most Arab people have a fixed view of Israel as a colonial, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check. Arguably the key juncture was the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israeli forces joined the French and British in attacking Egypt.

The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principle sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.

Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future” since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement.”

In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down.”
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups.” At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such an analysis ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.

But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.

The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.

This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations.

Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netenyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.

The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.

Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. The Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.

Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.

The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, that ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.

In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush snr. ten billion dollars worth of loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.

A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Fatah have their bottom line, which is the 1967 borders including partial control over Jerusalem, and for any peace to hold there would also surely have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.

A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will remain. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability.


Perhaps Ireland can learn from Muslims

(Unpublished, 2005)

In a recent article (8/3/2005) Kevin Myers contends that Ireland ‘lacks any real awareness of the enormously complex problems which lie ahead of us as our cities are being transformed by immigration’ before proceeding to offer a typically superficial analysis of what he deems this “complex problem”.

The target of Myers’s ire is what he terms Islamic fundamentalism (a term rejected by most Muslims – though the Arabic neologism usuliyyah has crept into usage). This is presented by Myers as an ideology similar to Communism and Nazism that rejects the diversity at the heart of the liberal order.

Myers’s particular grievance is against the wearing of the veil by women, which he describes as ‘misogynistic and dehumanising’ and ‘a step towards Pharaonic circumcision’ – whatever that is.

The implicit suggestion contained in the article is that the Irish government should adopt the policy of the French government who banned the wearing of the veil by school girls, an injunction that has given rise to violent clashes and has heightened a sense of exclusion among French Muslim as well as pandering to the extreme right of Le Penism.

Myers falls into the same trap as the fundamentalists he fulminates against by demanding that Muslims abide by the potentially totalitarian moral norms of an aggressive secularism. Surely a true liberal, as Myers seems to style himself, wouldn’t object to the hardly totalitarian idea of an individual making free choices regarding their code of dress. One wonders whether he excoriated his sister-in-law for the choice she once made to take a veil as a nun.

A more nuanced understanding of the contemporary Islam is called for. Take the views of sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who comes in for honourable mention in Myer’s piece.

Much of Qaradawi’s writings are to be found on the English language website where eminent clerics issue online fatwas (legal rulings) in response to questions posed by Muslims living in the West. Some of the topics addressed are surprisingly explicit including; ‘a divorced woman using a vibrator,’ or ‘undergoing a penis enlargement operation,’ as well as intimate ‘sucking a wife’s breasts,’ while others are more banal such as; ‘animals slaughtered without mentioning Allah’s name.’ One can hardly imagine a Catholic priest addressing such themes, and the frankness of the exchanges between clerics and their followers are indicative of the extent to which Islam retains its relevance to people’s lives.

Qaradawi’s approach to the question of suicide bombing is also more complex than Myer’s indicates; participation in the martyr operations carried out in Palestine given the status of the land as an occupied territory in addition to a lot of sacrilegious acts perpetrated by the Jews against the sanctuaries – is one of the most praised acts of worship.

Standard stuff but he goes on to say; Our target should be military personnel and not civilians when Israel does not attack our civilians. But as we can see nowadays, they violate the lives of all Palestinians civilians or non-civilians. Thus Qaradawi advocates that once Israel refrains from acts such as indiscriminate ‘targeted’ assassinations the taking of Israeli civilian life should cease.

Closer to home, Qaradawi unequivocally condemns recent suicide attacks against Western civilians. Trully our heart bleeds for the attacks that targeted the World Trade Centre… despite our strong opposition to America’s biased policy towards Israel. Since; Haphazard killings… where innocents are killed along with the wrongdoers is totally forbidden in Islam. Here Qaradawi seems to be offering contradicting interpretations since he previously endorses suicide operations in Israel which invariably lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, including children.

While Myers’s entreaty to deal with the issue of the arrival of Muslims in Ireland is welcome, surely the issue doesn’t always have to be addressed in terms of the constantly magnified danger it poses. His simplistic rendering of a relatively sophisticated phenomenon shows no understanding of the Islamic Revival that is occurring in Europe.

According to one of its leading lights Tariq Ramadan, who has been described as the Luther of Islam, ‘We are currently living through a veritable silent revolution in Muslim communities in the West’ because ‘Muslims may feel safer in the West, as far as the free exercise of their faith is concerned, than in some so-called Muslim countries.’

Ramadan calls on European Muslims to interact with their fellow citizens in the following way; ‘it is a question of entering into an authentic dialogue as between equals, with all our fellow citizens with respect for the respective universality of our respective values, willingly open to mutual enrichment and eventually to become true partners in action.’

The arrival of Muslims in Ireland calls for dialogue and interaction, rather than goading polemics. Certain interpretations of Islam such as justification for the physical chastisement of wives offend against universal codes of human rights but it is important to look below the surface and recognise the variety of interpretations.

Moreover, perhaps Irish people can learn from the values espoused by Muslim such as emphasis on the family, a much needed asceticism in the face of an over-weaning booze fuelled culture, and a re-activation of a humanitarianism that has been abandoned in the quest for mammon.

Life Under Assad

(Published in Village Magazine November, 2012)

I think I may be one of only a handful of people, not engaged in espionage, to have travelled overland on the same day from Jerusalem and Damascus since the foundation of Israel in 1948. Then, in 2003, Israeli border officials allowed travellers to avoid permanent stamps, but the Jordanian entry visa I had been issued, to traverse that country, must surely have given my whereabouts away.

After crossing the border I spent a few uncomfortable minutes inside Syrian territory without my passport which was in the hands of the border guards. The temperature outside was about forty and I was sweating from the inside out; visions of being accused of spying were coming to mind. Eventually I admitted visiting ‘Palestine’, flashed some dollars and beseeched the official to let me through. He gave me a toothy grin and relented. I was to find the inconsistency of Syrian border officials less charming in future.

At least I was given leave to enter what was an instantly fascinating country. A tangle of east and west removed from history, an oriental Cuba frozen in time.

On that first visit, I saw some of its remarkable sites: Crac de Chavalier, a Crusader castle of lore; Palmyra’s ruins, a lost Hellenic city in the dessert; and of course Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. There Roman ruins mingle with an Islamic heritage that includes the stunning Umayyad mosque as well some recent ugly additions inspired by close relations with the USSR. Alas, I never made it to Aleppo, where the battle for Syria now rages, on this or my subsequent visit.

I returned a year later to improve my Arabic, a project that was sadly de-railed. It is said to take 20 years to master the Arabic language. I never got passed year two, but in that time I at least gained some appreciation of what life was like in Syria.

The first point to emphasis is its religious diversity. This is inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule which ended abruptly after World War I. Under that Empire confessional communities joined together into semi-autonomous millet. The leader of each was the patriarch or chief rabbi depending on denomination; he would regulate relations between that community and the sultan’s officials.

It was a system that functioned successfully for centuries. Though Sunni Muslims dominated and did not pay the zakat a tax levied on religious minorities, there was a degree of toleration not seen in Europe until the nineteenth century. But it left a patchwork of self-contained communities when state boundaries were clumsily forged by the French and British who divided the Ottoman carcass between them. The League of Nations Mandates as these new arrangements were termed, were a cloak for imperialism.

The French, who conquered Syria from nationalists seeking to build a pan-Arab state under the Hashemite King Faisal, set about dismembering the old Ottoman province of Syria, creating the state of Lebanon with a Christian population sufficiently large to dominate its affairs. This left a Syrian rump, reduced further when Antioch (now Anatakya) was effectively transferred to Turkey in 1938 to ensure their neutrality in the forthcoming war.

The French preserved religious identifications but eschewed the traditional ruling Sunni notables in favour of the religious minorities; perpetuating sectarian differences in the process. Alawis, an Islamic offshoot, who formed under 15% of the population were invested with particular responsibility. Centuries of marginalisation ensured their antipathy to the Sunni ruling class and many were made officers in the new army. When independence was achieved after World War II their group solidarity endured and their positions in the military gave them serious clout.

After a succession of coups, the country became a stable military dictatorship in 1970 under Hafiz Al-Assad who surrounded himself with a loyal coterie of Allawi. Substantial Christian communities (20%) and a smaller Druz (below 5%), also identified with the regime. There are ethnic differences too with substantial Kurdish and Turkmen minorities to the north but these groups are too distant from the urban centre of power to play a significant role in national politics.

The Syrian Arab Republic is an avowedly Arab nationalist state under the Ba’th party. Pan-Arab nationalism was a useful ideology for a fractured, irredentist polity where a religious minority held the reigns of power.

Carefully selected Sunni Arabs were co-opted and placed in visible positions of authority, though the bulk of the population did not identify with the regime, as the recent revolt shows.

Syria proved a durable presence in a dangerous neighbourhood, between Iraq and Israel,  under the canny and often brutal leadership of Hafiz Al-Assad. A Cold War has been maintained with Israel since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with Lebanon being the scene of proxy conflict where. Syria, along with Iran, have supported Hizbullah. The presence of an external enemy has served the regime’s interests, drawing attention from the fractured nature of Syrian society. A sense of paranoia over Israeli espionage was fostered; we learnt to refer to it as ‘the country with no name’.

On my second visit in 2004 I again arrived overland, this time from Turkey. I was to spend three months learning what life was like in Damascus under the dictatorship.

The first thing that struck was how safe it was. Crime was virtually non-existent, at least in the historic medina I lived. The greatest threats emanated from fleets of taxis that sped recklessly through narrow streets emitting cloud puffs of intoxicating smoke and horns beating Satanic rhythms.

Life seemed straightforward for most; artisans plied trades that would be undertaken in factories in the West. There were an extraordinary number of barbers, juice bars, and of course falafel or shwarma at every street corner. It’s a charming city of tea rooms where narguila pipes emit fragrant odours, and old men sit along roadsides playing endless games of backgammon. There is also the impressive Souk Al-Hamidiyeh where the bullet holes of French soldiers could still be seen. One wonders whether recent events are adding to those patterns.

In any business or government office there was always a smiling picture of the then young president Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafiz who assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father. This cult of the leader was firmly entrenched.

There was a tedium to life under the dictatorship: bookshops were a rarity and internet use highly circumscribed, at least at that time. Whenever I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from my parents there was always a muffled sound as if someone was snooping on the call, they must have grown bored by the accounts of what we ate for dinner.

There were more sinister aspects that I caught a glimpse of. Militants were said to ‘disappear behind the sun’ and mukhabarat agents were rumoured to abound. I once saw a chain gang of prisoners; but the regime did not generally air its dirty laundry in public.



When my university course finished and it was time to leave, I took a taxi, as you did, to the Lebanese border in order to catch my plane in Beirut. There my problems began as the military officials at the border told me I couldn’t leave. I was now in serious danger of missing my flight, or worse, so I rushed back in another taxi to Damascus and scurried around a number of government buildings, waking up officials en route before someone in the tourist ministry made a phone call to allow me through. At that point I resolved not to return as had been my intention.

I could not live in a country where my rights were so impeded. It is hardly surprising that so many Syrians drew the same conclusion after seeing there Arab brothers and sisters taking to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. I hope they succeed in their struggle, but that diversity and religious tolerance in that country is preserved.


(Unpublished, 2005)

Living in Syria the relentless barrage of anti-Israeli propaganda is exhausting. Zionist agents apparently lurk on every street corner and foreigners avoid the unwanted attention of moustachioed Mukhabarat agents by referring in public to Israel as the “country with no name.”

Syrian television features programmes depicting the bloodstained excesses of the Israeli Defence Forces while ordinary Syrians express an almost reverential fear of Israel ’s military capability. The state nurtures these sentiments, that border on racism: The Merchant of Venice is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to feature on the school curriculum, with the character of Shylock, the archetypal medieval Jewish villain, informing the political consciousness of Syrian youth.

Antipathy to Israel is understandable with a Palestinian population (those displaced by the foundation of Israel and their descendants) numbering close to a million, living in limbo between a grudgingly accepted state of residence and a cherished homeland.

Meanwhile the memories of the wars of 1967 and 1973 are still fresh, not to mention the Israeli occupation of Syrian territory in the Golan Heights, incorporated into Israel in 1981. But implacable hostility also serves to preserve national cohesion in a country containing potentially destructive sectarian tensions.

A trip to the city of Qunetra on the Israeli border goes some way to showing why hostility towards Israel is such a binding force.

After negotiating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Syria ’s Interior Ministry that is always accompanied by the smiles of bewildered officials invariably drinking tea who show all the decorum that Arabic hospitality requires before leading you on yet another wild goose chase, a visa was secured to this restricted area.

We set off from Damascus on a grim winter’s morning; the harsh desert climate mingling with the fumes of the antiquated motor cars of Soviet vintage that throng the city.

Qunetra is situated an uncomfortable hours journey from Damascus and the cost of the trip aboard a rickety service taxi is all of ten Syrian pounds – or €0.15. As we enter rural Syria , the poverty is palpable. Ramshackle buildings offer little respite from the elements while livestock seem to share the facilities of their owners. Away from the relative sophistication of the metropolis an increased social conservatism is evident on our bus as passengers carefully maintain a segregation of the sexes.

At last we reach the settlement beside Qunetra close to the Israeli border. Pristine UN four-wheel-drives parked around the town signal the presence of the multinational forces that maintain a precarious peace. Above, the Golan Heights, source of Syria ’s conflict with Israel, loom strategically.

We are ushered into a small checkpoint which includes the bunk beds of the bored conscripts of the Third World army that George W. Bush seems intent on destroying. After refusing the kind offer of some of the unappetising concoction that the cold and hungry men are cooking on their miserable gas stove, we move on outside to await the Mukhabarat guide detailed to show us around.

Our guide welcomes us with the usual etiquette but it is apparent that he is bored by our presence which has seemingly interrupted his slumber.

Qunetra was once a stop off on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus with a population of over thirty thousand that included both Muslims and Christians. During the 1973 war it was captured by the Israeli, but in 1974 Henry Kissinger (of all people) brokered an interim agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from this portion of Syrian territory. What was left behind serves as an indictment of Israeli methods.

We pull into the town which remains uninhibited since the Israeli departure and immediately are struck by the desolation. It feels like a ghost town, almost every house has been systematically levelled, the flat Arabic style roofs in one piece above the rubble.

Among the few buildings that remain structurally intact is what was once a hospital, but this omission was clearly not motivated by a sense of humanity on the part of the Israeli army for every square foot of the building is riddled with bullets, in a wanton act of vandalism. Left, like the tortured survivor of an otherwise massacred army, to serve as a warning against future rebellion.

The mountainous landscape, the grey sky and the apparent ethnic cleansing are all evocative of the excesses of the Balkans, this is Israel ’s Dirty War that the world doesn’t see.

From a European vantage it is hard not to have the idea that the Israelis are civilised and Western, above the barbarity of the suicide bombing Qur’an thumping Arabs, but a visit to Qunetra suggests otherwise.