In the West, most direct or indirect references to Islam conjure up negative connotations: conflict, terrorism, dictatorship, corruption, economic failure and injustice. There are two principle reasons for this negative perception: the lifestyle and policies of illegitimate rulers in many Muslim lands; and, the corrupt nature of the religious establishment in most of these countries (which is financed by the state that insists on its monopoly to “interpret” Islam). Iran and Saudi Arabia, arguably two of the most prominent Muslim countries in the Mideast, have gone further than others, wrapping themselves in Islam and making religion the foundation, albeit in different ways, of their claims to legitimacy. The distorted image of Islam this generates in the non-Muslim world misdirects the Western public.
The central goal of Islam is to create an egalitarian social structure where all men and women can contribute to the economic and social development of society. Economic justice is the critical element of an Islamic economic system. All physically and mentally competent Muslims are required to work for their livelihood, and those with a sufficient level of assets must pay taxes to help the state fund welfare and other social programs. Ownership in Islam is not absolute because everything ultimately belongs to the Creator.
Is this the image that we get from Muslim countries, and in particular from Saudi Arabia and Iran? Far from it. If this were the case, the citizenry in these countries would be content, there would be little reason for protests and the rest of the world might even want to adopt some of their policies.
In Saudi Arabia, the al-Sauds long ago made a pact with the Wahhabi religious leaders; namely, the religious leaders could do as they wished in all things religious as long as they went along with whatever the al-Sauds did in running the country. The situation in Saudi Arabia is as follows: the al-Sauds rule without the popular concurrence of citizens, are a law unto themselves, take whatever they want, whenever they want it from the treasury, live in palaces that are obscenely lavish, are corrupt, make little effort to build good institutions, waste economic resources on vast military expenditures mainly to help themselves stay in power, and have done little to create an environment for the productive development of society. At the same time, the religious establishment has outlawed the practice of any religious faith besides Islam in the kingdom, fills school textbooks with intolerance toward those of other faiths, looks on Shia Muslims as unbelievers, sanctions discrimination, finances mosques and madrassas around the world that preach its intolerant interpretation of Islam, and issues fatwas to support its “unusual” brand of Islam and al-Saud autocratic rule, most recently declaring that all protests were un-Islamic. Given these realities in Saudi Arabia and the constant claim by the al-Sauds that they are the guardians of Islam, is it any wonder why non-Muslims, and yes even the majority of Muslims around the world, have a negative view of the Islam and policies practiced in Saudi Arabia and of the al-Sauds as Muslim rulers?
In Iran, the religious establishment has put itself not only in charge of interpreting Islam for the people, as in Saudi Arabia, but for all intents and purposes it is the state. Iran’s constitution places the religious leader, who effectively appoints those who select him, the supreme and ultimate arbiter of all policies and practices of the state. The Iranian constitution leaves no doubt as to the fact that religion and the state are one and the same. Yes, Iran is a more open society than the Saudi Arabia of the al-Sauds, in large part because of its history and culture (not because of the religious establishment), but they still share many of the important failings. Above all, the religious establishment and the state, as in Saudi Arabia, will not tolerate any interpretation of Islam that differs from the official line (President Ahmadinejad’s closest associate was called a deviant because of one such interpretation) and all necessary force is used to stamp out any opposition. The major economic difference between the two countries is that the lifestyle of the al-Sauds is more lavish than that of the mullahs and Saudi Arabia has a much higher level of oil revenues per capita, affording more options to “buy” domestic support through social programs, subsidies and other means, and foreign support through lucrative contracts and other payments. Given these realities, again, is it any wonder that the image of Iran is not favorable in the West, or that Iran, the largest Shia country in the world, does not convey a favorable impression of Shia Muslims? It is for these reasons and the resulting suspicion with which Iran is viewed around the world that Shia in Bahrain want to keep Iran at a distance in their struggle to win basic human rights.
Given this state of affairs, what would it take to improve relations with the Muslim world? In the case of Saudi Arabia, it would require open US support for fundamental reforms in Saudi Arabia embracing constitutional monarchy and the near elimination of the power of the religious establishment—neither of which will happen anytime soon unless there are effective protests that look like they might succeed. In the case of Iran, it would require a change in the constitution, specifically the elimination of clerical rule—which will only come about if internal protests become relentless. And above all, Muslims must listen less to the clerical and politically motivated interpretation of Islam and instead go to the ultimate source—the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad—for themselves. The fundamental distortion of Islam by two states on different sides of the Sunni-Shia divide shows just how dangerous this sort of radicalization can become.
Image by Steve Evans