October 23, 2015

It’s Time to Talk About Saudi Arabia

by Stanley A. Weiss

In the House of Commons this past Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made two announcements pertaining to Saudi Arabia that sounded like they came straight out of the ninth century. The first was that thanks to British diplomacy, Hammond did “not expect” that a young political activist named Ali Mohammed al-Nimr – who had been sentenced by a Saudi court to “beheading and crucifixion” for the crime of attending a pro-democracy rally when he was 17 years old – would be put to death after all. The second was that a 74 year-old British grandfather named Karl Andee – an asthmatic, three-time cancer survivor living in Saudi Arabia who has spent the past year in jail for the crime of possessing homemade wine – would likely be spared the 350 lashes to which he had also been sentenced and which his children feared would surely kill him.

For those not up on their medieval execution methods, one story helpfully explained that had the sentence against Al-Nimr been carried out, the Saudi way dictates that his head would have been cut off with a sword, and then his headless body would have been publicly displayed as a lesson to others who would dare challenge the Saudi monarchy. Meanwhile, an Arab News columnist reflected on the grandfather’s case without a trace of irony, noting that while it is well-known that “alcohol is hazardous to health,” 360 lashes with a long, hard cane is “not a matter of inflicting pain but more of a moral punishment” – because, according to the Saudi way, “lashing is done through a careful procedure,” with the “elbow planted firmly to the side,” and with “only the quick movement of the hand from the wrist. It is not the pain,” he clarified, clearly never having felt 350 lashes. “It is the shame.”

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November 10, 2014

The Trap of Islam’s External Conflict

by Stanley A. Weiss

Washington–It was 35 years ago last week that a group of Islamic revolutionaries swept through the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 Americans hostage while opening a new chapter of violence in the Middle East. What began as a student movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was quickly overtaken by Muslim extremists who had a very different, more fundamentalist agenda in mind. While the three decades of conflict that have defined the region since 1979 is rooted in a lengthy list of grievances and injustices, the blood-feud at its core — and the motivations of the increasingly barbaric cast of characters involved in the war in and around Syria — is an ancient schism that goes back to the very origins of Islam itself.

In fact, as the renewed bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and Syria enters its third month on the heels of the news that the U.S. will roughly double its troop level in Iraq, it’s increasingly difficult to see a way forward for the U.S. or to feel that the growing web of extremism surrounding the conflict is anything but a trap. This is a holy war, a fight for the soul of Islam in endless search of new battlefields — which is precisely what it is has been in fits and starts since the year 632. In fact, a look back at roughly the same period of time from Islam’s earliest days — the three decades between the death of Mohammad and the rise of the Umayyed Dynasty on the same Syrian landscape scarred with suffering today — is to see that while the names and armies change, the essential conflict remains the same.

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