In a Blink, Heroes of Jihad Become Enemies of the State

Saudi Arabia’s brusque official toggle-which overnight turned jihadis in Syria from heroes into terrorists- demonstrates the scope of the regime’s authoritarian power, writes Muhammad al-Sadiq in Al Maqal.

And now suddenly jihad in Syria is the number one public preoccupation of Saudi Arabia. It is as if the entire Saudi media had sunk into a collective coma when the war in Syria started three years ago, and now they are all waking up at once. The blame game has begun, with everyone pointing fingers at the different armed groups that are trying to take Damascus. The ‘veil of ignorance’ that kept the Saudi people from seeing the truth has been torn away: now real questions can be asked about ISIL[Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] and its little competitors, and about the young Saudi recruits thrown like firewood into the flames of the international war in Syria.

The Saudi media arrived on the scene belatedly, as it usually does, suddenly eager to cast light on the Saudi youth who go off to fight in Syria for Al Qaeda branches like ISIL and the Nusra Front. So now we have journalist and MBC presenter Dawood al-Sheryani on his program Al-Thamina denouncing what he calls “jihad propagators,” calling out religious figures like Al-Arour, Al-Awdah, Al-Awaji and Al-Arifi, accusing them of encouraging our youth to go to war in a jihad that they have nothing to do with, just as the Sahwiyun [Islamic revivalists]did during earlier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These religious leaders have responded variously: some, like Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, have threatened the journalist with a libel suit, while others, like al-Arifi, have remained silent.

This is not the first time that the regime has succeeded in turning the table on everyone to its own benefit, and it probably will not be the last. The regime long turned a blind eye to media campaigns urging Saudis to give their all in support of the jihad in Syria, like in the earlier campaigns in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Religious figures daily thundered their support for jihadis in Syria, after of course being assured that the regime’s officially favoured taking Damascus by force. Even the most extreme jihadi groups could count on this support: groups who recognize neither international boundaries nor political settlements, and even after families in some Saudi cities began to complain that their teenage children were dreaming of going off to join a group in Syria in hopes of finding their promised virgins in paradise.

Just yesterday, they were being celebrated as mujahidin, and today they have been transmuted into terrorists, along with all of those who encouraged them to go. A new terrorism law has been issued, criminalizing those who fund and encourage the youth to get involved. In the game of internal Saudi politics, “Jihad” had suddenly become “terrorism,” after they told us for so long that terrorism was in fact a jihad.

It is not that the definitions of these terms are confused; but simply that politically, their positions have been turned upside down. In politics as in other fields, the sociologist Bourdieu tells us, it is the powerful who impose their terminology, their rules, and their moral values on everyone else in the game, and thereby win every round. The side with the money always sets the rules of the game, the conditions of victory, and can change the rules if defeat ever seems near.

What does this mean in practice? It means that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have the means to smoothly alter the way individual members of society understand and interpret the world; they control a formidable media machine, an extremely oppressive religious establishment, and an intrusive bureaucracy. Good turns into evil, beautiful to ugly. Wrong becomes right, or the other way round, depending on the needs of the regime, and without regard for the interests of our neighbors. Everyone else must accept their view of the world.

The new law leaves the concept of terrorism deliberately vague, so that it can be stretched to cover any situation the authorities wish. A disaster for society and for individuals: people and groups transformed with a snap of the fingers from heroes into criminals.

This happens not only in the context of the jihad in Syria, but with domestic religious figures as well: witness the case of Sheikh Ibn Jibreen, once a member of the Senior Clerics’ Association, until he signed a statement issued by the Committee for the Defense of Shariah Rights. And it is now happening to Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, who participated in National Dialog Conference as a ‘moderate’ scholar, and was once a permanent guest on MBC’s Hajr al-Zawiya program before abruptly being transformed into a propagator of terrorism by the authorities, who own and control the channel. Likewise with the political-religious movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, after the mother organization in Egypt was declared to be a terror group. The local branch in Saudi Arabia, which previously received generous support from the kingdom’s official religious institutions, and arrived here at the invitation of King Faisal to fill his barren religious apparatus during the struggle against Egypt’s Gamal Nasser.

Political authorities in Saudi Arabia have the power to alter symbolic meanings and the very rules of the game, whenever defeat looms. But the game this time is extremely dangerous, since it involves redefining vast parts of the country’s population, cornering them with a classification of terrorism. A prelude to an enormous social rupture, with an uncertain outcome, even though both the ball and the referee’s whistle are in the hands of a single player.

Muhammad Al-Sadiq Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard