Best Defense

What Obama may find in Arabia next week: A sense of authority in crisis

Next week, President Obama flies into Riyadh.

US President Barack Obama (L) meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud following a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud following a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)


By Janet Breslin Smith
Best Defense guest columnist

Next week, President Obama flies into Riyadh. He will find an unsettling welcome. The mood has darkened since his first trip in 2009.

Bombings in Brussels, Baghdad, Istanbul, and Lahore hang over conversations. Saudis are deeply concerned about falling government revenues, unemployment, and leadership uncertainties. They see war to the south in Yemen, wars to the north in Syria and Iraq, and most troubling, an apparent war within Islam itself. Underlying all of this is a certain helplessness, a sense of entrapment in a world spinning out of control.

The president must be attentive to this helplessness. It has puzzled me ever since I first taught Arab military students at the National War College. During the four years I lived in Riyadh when my husband was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, it pervaded all conversations. I heard this helpless tone again last month on a return trip to Riyadh. It goes beyond politics to a deeper fear bound within Islam, and is key to understanding the fight against extremism.

The Middle East and the broader Muslim world are in crisis. The evidence shouts alarm. War, terror, mass migration, children lost in the ravages of sectarian conflict, all are everyday occurrences. Militants are contesting the foundational core of Islam, and the faithful face the challenge to respond. But they do not.

I am not talking about pro forma statements from clerics rejecting terrorism and murder.  Rather, how does the average Muslim respond? How do mothers and fathers, family elders and tribal leaders confront, as so many confided to me — that they are losing control? It is their children, their brothers and sisters who are ignoring parents, rejecting their governments, and are going off to join gang-like groups in a grandiose project to redefine Islam.

This is a frontal attack by extremists lifting a banner of intolerance, brutality, and repression. The targets of this assault are not just men at arms, but children in a playground, mothers at an airport, men gathered at mosque for prayer. The world witnessing a crisis within Islam, a struggle among the faithful over the very essence of the faith itself.

But for those faithful, it is not a fair fight. Only one side — ISIS, the Taliban, al Qaeda — seems to be able to talk and act in the name of Islam. ISIS is defining Islam, as is the Taliban, and other groups kill in the name of God.

Saudi friends reassure me that “ISIS is not Islam,” but grow silent when asked what they will do to fight back, to assert their own vision of Islam.They say they will pray and be observant. But what inhibits their own intellectual and spiritual defense of Islam, their side of the fight?

The answer lies within. Islam is a tightly structured, rule-driven, and practice-focused religion.  It does not tolerate dissent among the faithful. For centuries of Islamic history, this religious model was married to strong political authority. While the arrangement worked in the days of defined cultural boundaries, it staggers under global physical and media exposure.

The faithful have no way to respond, to gather together and openly debate the rhetoric of radical jihadi Islam, the theology of ISIS. To do so is to incur the wrath of clerics, imprisonment, estrangement from family and friends, isolation, and the ever-ready death threats.

Faced with these constraints, those Muslims who might publicly question ISIS’s declarations, or who might want to reconsider how Islam should be practiced in modern times, are mostly mute.  Many want to reclaim and restore their faith, but could only imagine speaking up publicly if authorized by a political or religious leader.

Will the leaders of the Arab world allow the faithful to fight back? If they want to restore their faith, how can they debate these key questions:

  • Is Islam a religion of tolerance, or not?  If the faithful believe it to be the final revelation of God, how can they find a way to accept those of other faiths, or no faith?
  • Does Islam embrace equality, compassion, and justice?  What does its Holy book, the Quran say about corruption, injustice and materialism?
  • If ISIS and such groups have “hijacked” Islam, what are the faithful going to do about it?

What do they want Islam to be?

The United States must respect just how profound this crisis is for Muslims. A public crisis, yet it is a deeply personal, soul searching challenge, exposing the fault lines in family, clerical, and political authority.

Mothers and fathers yearn to rediscover the values within Islam that can bring order and meaning to this part of the world. The president will see it in the worried eyes of Riyadh.

The President will assert that ISIS needs to be defeated. But Saudis know it can only be conquered by the faithful themselves.

Dr. Janet Breslin Smith was Chair, Department of National Security Strategy at the National War College from 1992-2006. She lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from 2009-2013.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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