When writing her book, Medea Benjamin did so with the attempt of “giving readers a basic understanding of how the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] holds on to power internally and how it tries to influence the outside world”. The book then aimed to examine the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Benjamin is a political activist and the co-founder of an organisation called CODEPINK. CODEPINK was founded in 2002, as a movement that opposed Western intervention in Iraq. It has expanded into a group “working to end US wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
In her book, Benjamin clearly allows her background to inspire her writing style. She argues from the point of a passionate political activist, rather than offering a dispassionate academic analysis that engages with the many debates surrounding the various topics she addresses.
After reading the introduction, I continued with the expectation of there being an in-depth critical analysis of the internal workings of the Saudi government and its relationship with the religious establishment. My expectations soon fell after reading the section describing the “origins of Saudi Arabia”. While Benjamin explained that there was an early marriage between the followers of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab and the Al Saud family, the relationship was not analysed coherently enough to explain today’s political and religious dynamics in Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, the Saudi rulers are politicians with their own political agendas and the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia have their own religious agenda. As opposed to what Benjamin tried to portray, the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi thought are not one entity within Saudi Arabia; they are separate entities that use each other to legitimise their power and authority within the kingdom. She failed to explain that the Saudi monarchy is ultimately driven by its political agenda rather than its alleged undying alliance with the Wahhabi school of thought.
This can be shown by looking at the Saudi relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, Saudi Arabia has had a decent relationship with the political organisation, which was endorsed by the religious bodies in Saudi. At large, neither the Saudi political, nor religious establishments had major problems with the Muslim Brotherhood, until it became strategically viable for Saudi to cut ties with the political organisation. High ranking clerics in Saudi followed suit by endorsing the change in Saudi policy, despite it not being coherent to the essence of Abd Al-Wahhab’s teachings of strengthening Muslims through unity.
Engaging with academic literature
The book engaged more with media sources than academic literature surrounding the Saudi monarchy and the many schools of thought Benjamin addressed, and that is perhaps its greatest weakness. When it came to explaining concepts like Sufism and Wahhabism and the Alawite school of thought, Benjamin resorted to using blanket statements.
For example, she referred to Sufism as “not a branch of Islam, but a practice”. While there are many who hold this opinion, it is not the only way to define Sufism. Mainstream Islamic scholars have not come to a concrete way to define what it means to be a Sufi; the debate on whether it is a branch is alive and well. For Benjamin to disregard the presence of the debate and strictly define Sufism as a practice is inconsistent and questionable.
She portrays Sufis as purely mystical and spiritual, which is a mistake that many make. Benjamin attempts to create a distinction between the “mystical” Sufis and the “repressive nature of Wahhabism”; implying that Sufis are peaceful and apolitical while Wahhabis are violent and politically charged. This is inaccurate and a typically orientalist analysis of Sufism, because the mysticism of Sufis has not stopped them from being apolitical, or have made them exempt from having a violent history. Historically, some of the most famous fighters are Sufis, such as Abdelkader El Djezairi, who led a struggle against French colonialists in Algeria. The concept of an apolitical Sufi is actually a relatively modern one that has been especially emphasised in the post 9/11 world order.
The same goes for Alawites. She defined Alawites as being a “Shia related sect”. Again, this can be debated. There are some Alawites who state that they are a separate sect. Prior to the 20th century, Twelver Shia scholars actually cursed Muhammad ibn Nusayr, the founder of the Alawite sect, many considering him a heathen.
These debates were not present, nor were they even mentioned, which makes Benjamin’s analysis of Islam, which took up a large part of her book, weak. When looking at her bibliography, it was clear that she did not engage with Islamic texts, or deeply examine the works of Islamic scholars to familiarise herself with the debates. This gave her book an orientalist and pretentious tone.
The orientalism stood out to me particularly when she spoke of meeting children in Afghanistan and Pakistan who were trained to hate Westerners in Saudi schools. Without denying that radicalisation has happened at schools in Saudi (and in almost every other part of the world), what was the background of the children and what made them vulnerable to their radicalisation? Were other variables like poverty, trauma, tribalism, parental coercion or even being subjected to Western drone strikes present in their radicalisation? How and to what extent did the Saudi state play a direct role in developing hate? These questions were completely unanswered.
Strength of political analysis
Benjamin uses a similar flawed mechanism when trying to draw a connection between Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and terrorist groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda. She talks about the fact that there were Al-Qaeda leaders who resided in Saudi Arabia, or were taught in Saudi schools, but did not address the fact that other countries, like Iran have had relations with terrorist groups. A small example of this is that the current Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Zawahiri received support from Iran.
She also attempted to analyse the way in which the Syrian revolution was taken over by Islamists, referring to the “private funding from the Gulf states provided support for other extremist Sunni groups fighting to topple Assad”. While this has an element of truth, it is factually incorrect, along with being amateurish and imbalanced to say that Gulf funding itself has allowed extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution. It must not be forgotten that the dictator Bashar Al-Assad played a role, especially by letting extremists out of prison, to corrupt the Syrian revolution.
Compilation of media sources
The book did, however, succeed in displaying the discontentment that Saudis live with. The vast majority of her citations were media reports. While doing this made her analysis of concepts she attempted to cover shallow, it gave her book strength in the sense that she was able to give tangible examples where the Saudi state had oppressed people.
Overall, the book is good for someone who wishes to have an index of instances in which the Saudi regime has oppressed, but not so for someone who wants a coherent, academic analysis of the Saudi regime. I was disappointed to see that the inner mechanisms of the Saudi government were not addressed, and disappointed at the political and philosophical analysis within the book.
Benjamin seemed somewhat afraid to touch upon concepts that contradict her thesis, which disappointingly turned her book into a propaganda piece rather than a well thought out analysis. Even as someone who agrees with her that the Saudi government is repressive, I was uncomfortable at the shallow nature of her book.
Even before reading the bibliography, I was able to tell that she did not engage with the academic concepts that she attempted to tackle. Considering activism is Benjamin’s strong point, perhaps the book would have been better if she did not touch upon the religious and political concepts that she was unable to analyse coherently and focused on writing from the point of view of an activist instead.