Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
MOST analysts assume that the restrictive practices that had been the norm in Saudi Arabia until King Abdullah Al Saud and thereafter Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman took charge had been part of the country’s history from the beginning. In much the same way, they saw as “natural to the Afghan people” the societal mores enforced during the period when (with US support) the Taliban controlled 86% of Afghanistan. The fact is that Afghanistan was a modern, moderate country in line with the wise example set by Prophet Mohammad, who showed by example his respect for women as well as for those who belonged to faiths different from that which had been revealed to him. Only when he was engaged in a war (and this did not happen very often) was the Prophet constrained to adopt the practices needed to ensure victory over those seeking to destroy him and his rapidly expanding flock. There were Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists living peacefully among their Muslim neighbours, especially in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.
The Pashtuns in particular were known for their liberal and tolerant spirit, changes taking place only after the CIA intervened in favour of Wahabbism the way the agency had in Saudi Arabia after Ayatollah Khomenei took over power in Teheran in 1979 and directed his fire at the US and Israel. Not even secretly, Saddam Hussein was encouraged to attack Iran soon afterwards, and supplied even with chemical weapons for the purpose by the US and the UK. Of course, after he invaded Kuwait, Saddam was a marked man, finally getting defeated in 2003 on the pretext that he had supplies of WMD that both London and Washington knew were not there, else they would not have dared to invade the country with hundreds of thousands of troops but confined their actions to the air. Nearer home, during the period when Zahir Shah was King of Afghanistan, women were wholly free to adopt the dress and lifestyle they chose.
It was only after the Soviet invasion that first the Carter and later the Reagan administration in Washington gave open backing to religious fanatics eager to rid the country not only of the Soviet invaders but of anyone else who did not subscribe to a restrictive interpretation of the faith that placed severe limits on human conduct and reduced the people to a lowly status when compared with the Taliban rulers, who even weeks before September 11,2001 were welcome visitors to the US State Department as well as,on occasion, the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Most of the trips made by Taliban representatives to the US were funded either directly by the US administration or paid for by GCC states at the request of US officials. It was only after 1979 that Wahabbism grew deep roots within Saudi Arabia, a transformation that had the blessings of the US and the former ruling power, the UK. It was when King Abdullah took over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2005 that the lavish financial assistance given to Wahabbi institutions was slowed down and the rigid constructs of Wahabbi societal norms were slowly relaxed.
The King’s death ten years later gave rise to fears that the re-entry of Saudi Arabia into the comity of nations with a moderate ethos would get halted. However, the opposite has taken place. Almost as soon as he was appointed Crown Prince by King Salman (the successor to King Abdullah), Muhammad bin Salman accelerated the de-Wahabbization of Saudi Arabia. Initially, this met with opposition from those whose bank balances and lifestyles had prospered as a consequence of the annual flow of billions of dollars to Wahabbi institutions. However, the Crown Prince did not lose his nerve but took on the Wahabbi establishment with full force, backed by his father King Salman Al Saud, who saw in the youthful prince an individual with the qualities needed to ensure that Saudi Arabia smoothly enter into the 21st century from the 16th. Wahabbbis and their global backers have created a perception that the overwhelming majority of Muslims subscribe to their narrow – and wrong – interpretation of a faith based on the qualities of compassion, beneficence and mercy.
Analysts and commentators in the US and the UK in particular were at first dismissive of both the intentions as well as the degree of success of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in his efforts at returning his country to the moderate values that were the norm before Wahabbism was given a cortisone boost by external agencies. However, it must be said that President Donald J Trump has from the start given the Saudi Crown Prince full backing, and this has been an important factor in his success. Hopefully the Crown Prince will extricate Saudi Arabia from its external conflicts (such as in Yemen) and concentrate on driving Wahabbism away from Saudi Arabia. Success in this task will change the history of not merely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but the entire world.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.