The Arab Spring was widely praised in its early days by a range of pundits, politicians and experts of geopolitical matters. Supporters, with mildly good reasons, viewed the events as a welcome change from the long history of Arab strongmen ruling with support from the West. However, criticisms and concerns that the dictators’ replacements might produce a worse situation for Western interests and human rights, were dismissed. For instance, Colonel Ralph Peters, a man I generally respect and trust on issues of military and international affairs, rejected fears by many that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power in Egypt. I suppose we’ll let him take a mulligan on that one.
With a larger sample size now available, the Arab Spring is openly transforming from an uprising initially perceived as one of hope and budding Jeffersonian democracy to a much bleaker and disheartening downward spiral into chaos and cultural regression. A more apt seasonal metaphor is the increasingly embraced "Arab Winter." As that transformation continues, the rights of women and religious minorities, already under assault in the Muslim World, will likely deteriorate to levels not seen in any of our lifetimes. Put differently, the Saudi Arabianization of the Middle East is advancing as the Saudis intended years ago.
It’s taken for granted in the West that when developing nations achieve greater wealth and exposure to the West, the local culture will gradually move toward more progressive policies vis-à-vis human rights and civil liberties (I use the term “progressive” here in its traditional sense, not the political one). We’ve seen this in countries from Vietnam to Eastern Europe to even China. Up until the mid 20th century, this was true in much of the Middle East as well.
Saudi Arabia serves as a stark exception to the above rule. In a testament to their astounding cultural rigidness and hostility to disruptions of the status quo, the Saudis managed to modernize their country via wealth and technology acquisition but without bestowing greater freedom on their people. Slavery wasn’t officially outlawed until 1962, though only by law, not practice. Just a few years ago, the Saudi religious police refused to allow schoolgirls to leave a burning building because they were not wearing the correct Islamic attire. Fifteen girls died as a result. More recently, a woman was executed for practicing “witchcraft.” These weren’t the actions of a mob or lone-wolf, but sanctioned by government and religious authorities.
The Arab Spring itself dispelled another long held general rule held by the West: cultural and political progress always moves forward and gains made cannot be lost. A series of photographs made the rounds on the internet a few years back which demonstrated this general rule was already in trouble in the Middle East long before the Arab Spring. Photos from the graduating class of Cairo University showed how over time, more and more women were wearing head coverings in their photos. The photo in 1959 looked like it came from a university in Paris. The one in 2004 looked completely different, with most of the women concealing their faces or wearing head scarves.
The slow decline and regression of human and civil rights in the Islamic world in the mid 20th century coincided with Saudi Arabia’s ascension in the Muslim World. What began with religious zealots challenging the Saudi Royal Family’s religious credentials in the infamous Siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, ended with the Royal Family brandishing its religious credentials by embarking on a path of promoting, subsidizing and spreading its puritanical brand of Islam, Wahhabism. Previous Islamic-in-name-only populations throughout the world were slowly colonized by Imams and clerics trained in the ways of Wahhabism. Madrassas and Saudi designed cultural centers from Cairo to Jakarta to Islamabad were constructed throughout the globe to promote Saudi interests. Saudi agents and bagmen created fertile ground for the regression of human rights and culture where ever they traveled.
Rather than Saudi Arabia progressing to the standards of other more modern cultures, Saudi Arabia laid the groundwork for other Muslim cultures to regress and adopt their archaic cultural and human rights norms. The Arab Spring and the chaos that did unfold and will continue to accelerate were the result of more than forty years of prep work by the Saudis. With the Muslim masses dismissing dictators and supporting Islamic puritans, from Egypt to Tunisia to Libya, the Saudis have already seen an impressive return on their investment in promoting global Wahhabism.
Islam and its intrinsic mistreatment of women and religious minorities provide ready means for Islamic countries to continually serve as the exception to the above general rules. With these axioms ingrained in the fabric of Islam, the threat of cultural, political and human rights degradation is always present for a country or ruler to exploit, contravening the prevailing norms of an increasingly interconnected world. Absent a repudiation of the political and primitive aspects of Islam, the Jeffersonianization of the Middle East is not possible and Saudi Arabianization is always more likely. It is therefore crucial for the U.S. and its allies not to lose sight of this and strive to keep the influence of of overtly Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia weak.
Allen Mitchum is the author of the new political thriller 28 Pages involving a shocking Saudi conspiracy against the United States. To contact Allen or learn more about his novel, please visit his website at www.allenmitchum.com.