Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Books #8 and #9: The Histories of Herodotus, Inside the Kingdom

I'm mostly proud to have finished The Histories of Herodotus, which I think was more interesting for its treatment of history than the histories contained in it. Herodotus is cited as the first person to have written history and, as such, his treatment of it is unfamiliar to us because he was doing something no one had done before. For the most part, Herodotus wrote an interesting series of tales about the Greek-Persian conflict, even if that conflict can be hard to follow for modern readers thanks to the many comical sidebars in the book.

While I enjoyed reading Herodotus, chiefly for the cruelty and excesses with which politics and power were exercised in antiquity, I can't say that I have a lot to say about it, certainly not a week after I finished it.

The more interesting book was Robert Lacey's Inside the Kingdom, a retelling of the recent history of Saudi Arabia. I have to say that I've held a grudge against Saudi Arabia as one of the most vile states in the world for reasons like this. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were also Saudi, though that one was less the result of active government policy. I bought the book expecting a well-researched albeit heavily critical look at the kingdom. While the book is critical, it by no means overlooks the successes and the commendable actions of the country and its rulers.

Reading the brief history of how modern Saudi Arabia came to be, as an alliance between strict Wahabbi Muslims and the House of Saud, I was struck by the megalomaniacal tendencies of the name of the country. This might be the only country in the world named after those who rule it.

Lacey explains that Saudi Arabia has, simply put, been a partnership between mosque and state. The House of Saud has ruled with the support of Islam clerics. After the discovery of oil (the British Iraqi Petroleum Company "doubted there was much oil in Arabia"), the country became wealthy and, if not necessarily liberal, then at least modern in a way that made conservatives uncomfortable.

In Lacey's narrative, this culminated in the armed uprising where the Masjid al-Haram (also known in English as the Grand Mosque) was held hostage by extremists who thought the House of Saud had lost its way. In its aftermath, the Saudi government responded with concessions to clerics, whose violent, xenophobic rhetoric found an outlet in the Afghan-Soviet War. At its conclusion, the violence made its way home to Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen and Tanzania among other places.

These attacks, of course, culminated in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Not too many Saudis and Muslims in general might have been moved by this and, let's be honest, why should they be? How moved are you by the deaths of three thousand people who don't share your way of life? For the Saudis, the real moment of truth came when Al Qaeda began to act in Saudi Arabia, making it clear that the terrorists were after the Saudi state as much or more as they were after America.

This caused Saudi Arabia to change course culturally, much as it had been changing course economically under King Abdullah. One of the interesting things about the book is the way it portrays most Saudi kings in a favourable light. While they by no means have absolute power, sharing it with dozens of princes as well as the clergy, reform has been absurdly slow in Saudi Arabia by the standards of virtually any other country.

Nevertheless, reform came in Saudi Arabia under Abdullah after 9/11. Religious extremism was combated and many of the financial excesses of the endless royal family and its equally endless entourage were curtailed, as was corruption. Saudi Arabia began to rank reasonably well on some metrics as a place to do business, though these metrics are obviously questionable.

Abdullah's reforms have been in the area of:
- openness, urging journalists to write articles critiquing how the government conducts itself
- democracy, Abdullah set a goal of achieving a full adult democracy in 20 years
- education, Abdullah wants to open a world-class university in Saudi Arabia
- women's rights, Abdullah moved women's education away from religious authorities and put it under the jurisdiction of the ministry of education after the deaths of 15 female students in Mecca
- civil rights, it's promised that someday the country might move away from its current model of allowing the police to hold anyone without charges for up to six months, though I wouldn't hold my breath

While Saudi Arabia is still a place where women can't drive or attend university without a man's permission, where men or women can't voice any dissent without the risk of ending up in jail, and where being anything other than Muslim is punishable by death, the reality of life in the kingdom is more nuanced than we might imagine.

I read the book because it's about a topic that I know superficially but have not read about in detail for a number of years, and much has changed since I did so. For many Muslims who feel that Islam is the simple answer to all social problems, though I feel they say that more to proselytize than actually believing it, the reality of governing a Muslim country is extremely complex.

It's one thing to appeal to religion for having all the answers, it's another to try and run a modern, economically competitive state in the twenty-first century using Islam. A good first, step, however, would be to jettison literalism and trying to live exactly as the Prophet Muhammad did. I can still remember Muslim students at the University of Toronto who wore Arab-style robes and grew long beards, but also availed themselves of the benefits of Goretex jackets and Nike running shoes, luxuries the Prophet himself likely never had.

Shia intellectual Tawfiq Al-seif explains the challenge when interviewed by Lacey in the book: "there is a verse in the Koran that says in order to be strong in war against your enemies you have to prepare 'swords and horses'. Well, if you take that literally nowadays and go into battle with swords and horses you will find yourself hopelessly weak against your enemies. So here is a case where everyone would agree that you have to reinterpret what the Prophet said... What the pious Muslim--Sunni or Shia--should be asking himself today is not what the Prophet did then, but what he would do now if he were confronted by the realities of modern life."

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