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Saudi Arabia’s curious response to the extraordinary feat of electing the first two Muslim-American women to the U.S. Congress has shocked American Muslims. Instead of celebrating this enormous achievement, the Saudi regime has excoriated Congress members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar as stooges of the Muslim Brotherhood and traitors to their religion.
As Hamid Dabashi points out in his illuminating piece in Al Jazeera, this development is all the more striking because the Saudis view themselves as the custodians of the religion’s holiest sites, and as the cradle of Islam. They welcome many millions of Muslims of all stripes each year on hajj.
In normal circumstances, you would expect anyone bearing such enormous responsibility to exercise it judiciously and in an inclusive manner, so that all Muslims would feel welcome under the tent of Islam.
Wahhabism as Islam’s Theological Thought Police
Under the influence of their exclusivist Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia appears to see itself as a form of theological Thought Police. As such, it has declared war on “errant strains” like Shiism, and done the same to fellow-Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood, because of the latter’s populist leanings and hostility to Arab authoritarian government (especially the hereditary regimes and military strongmen of the Sunni world).
This deep enmity not only strains the bonds of Islam itself, it divides the Muslim homeland from the vast Muslim diaspora, specifically American Muslims. If Saudi Wahhabism had an indisputable authority world-wide, perhaps such theological exceptionalism might carry the day. But despite spending billions throughout the world to build mosques and spread the Wahhabi creed, there is no universally acknowledged definition of Muslim “correctness.”
Muslims throughout the world have let, if not a thousand flowers bloom, then at least scores of varieties of Islam flourish. They have taken root in non-Muslim majority nations throughout the world, including the west (to the despair of white nationalist Islamophobes like Donald Trump).
Though they may try to brand Wahhabism as the sole legitimate definition of Islam, these efforts are bound to fail. The more draconian their pronouncements against Muslim political leaders like Tlaib and Ilhan, the more resistant American Muslims will become.
The Israel-Diaspora Dialectic
There is an extraordinary parallel between the Saudi approach and that of Israel toward the Jewish diaspora. For thousands of years, Jews have considered Israel as not only the birthplace of Judaism, but the center of the Jewish universe. The Jewish liturgy and sacred texts speak fervently of the “ingathering of exiles” and the return to Zion.
Over the past 70 years, since its founding, Israel has invested extraordinary efforts, both financial, educational, and political, in cultivating a modern cult of Zion. That is, that Israel represents not just a specific nation, but that it speaks on behalf of entire Jewish people. It was expected that such solidarity would bind the diaspora indissolubly to Israel.
Israel’s founders desperately needed such support as they sought to build their new state. They needed the manpower of diaspora immigrants peopling the new country; and the financial and political muscle to win UN recognition and build its military power (and its nuclear weapons program).
Israel Lobby as Extension of State Power in Diaspora
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Israel cultivated partnerships with diaspora Jews to create one of the most powerful domestic political powerhouses, the Israel Lobby. It exercised this power both in Congress to secure funding for Israel’s military needs, and within the Jewish community itself to enforce political discourse around Israel.
Curiously, as Israel’s domestic politics have become more anti-democratic and racist, and discourse has become more heavily policed and suppressed, the Lobby’s undisputed power has slowly begun to crack.
This process has been accompanied by an increasing hostility on the part of Israel’s political leadership toward the diaspora. Despite local communal leaders’ sworn fealty to Israel, Bibi Netanyahu and Israel’s far-right politically-dominant class have increasingly distanced themselves from their co-religonists. Netanyahu has privately predicted the Jewish diaspora will eventually disappear “in two generations” due to assimilation (a classic Zionist trope). Further, he has written off American Jews as hopelessly beholden to the Democratic Party, which he has determined is the enemy of Israel’s interests.
Writing Off the Jewish Diaspora
Instead, Israel has put its stock in a new alliance with Christian evangelicals and the far right-wing of the GOP, including a noxious strain of white supremacists represented by figures like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, John Bolton and the like.
Just as Saudi Arabia has adopted a particularly virulent form of Islam, so Israel has endorsed a particularly fundamentalist version of Judaism. Israeli Orthodox Judaism is an especially exclusionary form of state religion, which rejects not only the rights of Jewish women, but also the legitimacy of dominant strains of Jewish worship among American Jews: Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Within the American Jewish community, this drama has played out interestingly with the development of an increasingly strong dissident movement represented by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. They refuse to take their marching orders from Israel. Instead, their approach to Israel is guided by principles deriving both from American and Jewish traditions. These include democracy, equality, religious tolerance and the rule of law; precisely those values latter-day Israel has abandoned.
Israel labels such political developments, much as Saudis approach Muslim dissenters, as a form of secular Zionist heresy. They call Jews who embrace the value of a state for all its citizens and BDS as terrorists, anti-Semites or self-hating Jews.
There is almost a straight line between Saudi efforts to smear American Muslims as supporters of terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Israeli efforts to label American Jewish dissenters as delegitimizers of the “Jewish state.”
These efforts by both the Saudis and Israel’s dominant Likud majority are viewed by their targets as increasingly strident, desperate and self-defeating. Instead of invoking fear, they draw responses ranging from derision to disbelief.
To spearhead a world-wide religion you must exercise leadership, moderation, acceptance and judgement. These are values entirely lacking among Israelis and Saudis.
Strange Bedfellows: Israel’s Unprecedented Alliance with Former Arab Foes
It’s no coincidence that this common approach by Saudis and Israelis corresponds to an unprecedented military, diplomatic and political regional alliance by the two nations against their common enemies, Shiite Islam–represented by Iran and Hezbollah. Israel has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams at fracturing the decades old common Arab front by breaking off Sunni states like Egypt and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. The unthinkable has now become commonplace.
Despite this seeming victory of Israeli foreign policy objectives, it is doubtful that it will alleviate the pressure on Israel to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and Syria, whose territories it continues to occupy in violation of international law. The best-laid plans of Israeli strategists to vitiate Arab resistance to Israel, promise to be no more than an evanescent puff of smoke, and just as long-lasting.
Call for New Muslim-Jewish Intersectionality
Just as the Saudis and Israelis have found common cause in their efforts to enforce theological and ideological hegemony, it’s imperative that diaspora Muslims and Jews embrace an intersectional approach. We must find solidarity in each other’s struggles for peace, tolerance, and justice. This process is already quite developed via movements like BDS and Black Lives Matters. But I believe there should be a specific confluence between Jews and Muslims to embrace each other’s respective struggles. We need new solidarity organizations, academic conferences, joint protests, and political lobbying efforts.