Saudi youths demonstrate a stunt known as “sidewall skiing” (driving on two wheels) in the northern city of Hail, in Saudi Arabia. Photo Credit: Reuters
Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia (2020)
by Pascal Menoret
Stanford University Press, 250 pp., $24.00
Saudi Arabia is a country of extremes: extreme heat, extreme wealth, and as Pascal Menoret points out in his trailblazing study, Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia, extreme boredom. In one of his many conversations with young Saudis, the term la mubala is used by one activist to label his movement to action. La mubala, as Menoret says, can be lazily translated as apathy. Apathy is generally assumed to not be enough to spur mass political movement, but in the case of Saudi Arabia la mubala can be better understood as a sort of freedom. “Apathy,” Menoret writes, “was a form of creative emptiness. It was not numbness, but the silence in which one could find one’s self and muster the courage to do something. Apathy was repressed political desire. It was the calm before the great passion.”[i]
It was this “creative emptiness,” the result of decades of social and spatial engineering by the Saudi ruling family, that laid the groundwork for the Islamic Awakening in Saudi Arabia. Islamic action was central to this Awakening. Commonly denounced as Islamism by pundits and policymakers in the West, Islamic action became the only way for disaffected Saudi youth activists to reclaim social agency and “re-enchant public life.” For Menoret, studying Islamic action and the Awakening is not so much about the texts and doctrines of Islam, but its actions and practices. By constructing this analytical lens, Menoret deftly examines “the ambiguities and contradictions that are inseparable from the daily lives of ordinary activists,” as he puts it.[ii]
Trained as an anthropologist, Menoret deploys an interview and character-driven approach that refreshingly eschews a top-down, thousand-foot view that all too often generalizes and amplifies tired platitudes about Saudi Arabia. In Graveyard’s quick 200 pages, readers meet teachers, clerics, joyriders, drug addicts, students, and activists, all trying to live their best lives under the thumb of the Al Saud ruling family. What is notably missing in Menoret’s book, however, are women. That this book, ostensibly devoted to understanding Saudi activism, neglects to mention the role that women play is puzzling. A disappointing omission to be sure, Graveyard remains a dazzling and informative study of Saudi society (or lack thereof).
How exactly did Saudi youth become so disaffected in the first place, and how have Islamic activists been able to organize in the shadow of one of the world’s most repressive states? These two questions, as Menoret explains, are deeply intertwined. To understand the modality and nature of the Islamic Awakening and the Islamic action of which it was composed, one must understand the way in which the Saudi state has been carefully engineered by the Al Saud family and its Western patrons.
In 1933, just after the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an American company –later renamed Aramco — was granted land nearly half the size of the new kingdom to drill for oil. After various labor strikes and instances of unrest under the US imperial and corporate presence, Aramco sponsored the development of new company towns, compared to American Levittowns by Menoret, that would place workers in newly designed suburbs that were easy to police and kept under the watchful eye of the company. Because, as Menoret points out, the United States viewed home ownership, mass consumerism, and cheap loans as a powerful alternative to Communism, the construction of sprawling suburbs fit nicely into the ideological battle of the Cold War. “French and British colonizers had built cities; the US empire would be suburban,” Menoret observes.[iii]
Fearing more unrest, the ruling family contracted European city planners to manage increased migration to new, quickly expanding urban centers like Riyadh and its growing urban sprawl. In the late 1960s, as Menoret points out, state officials commissioned Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis to create massive superblocks that would function as semi-autonomous villages with access to schools, markets, and a mosque that would function as the focal point of each block. Doxiadis’ goal was to create an atomized, fragmented Saudi society that would be shielded from, what he and the ruling family believed to be, toxic political ideas. Mimicking an imagined, rural, traditional social geography was key as an obstacle to any sort of mass organization or potential revolution, Menoret argues. After the oil boom of the early 1970s and the siege of Mecca in 1979, the Saudi ruling family believed further expansion of the suburbs and increased development of subdivisions would render society weaker and break social solidarities found in closely-knit urban environments. “Everywhere developers built sprawling suburbs and sold villas to middle-class wage earners, whom they expected to behave like responsible homeowners, repaying their loans and living quiet, dull, controlled lives,” Menoret writes.[iv]
It was in this very fragmented, atomized setting, however, that the Islamic Awakening was able to organize outside of the view of the state: “Activism flourished in the shadow of the state, within the many cracks and voids created by a sprawling, poorly organized administration.”[v] Because political activity was tightly controlled by the regime, Islamic activists had to find acceptable institutions and structures they could use to organize. By creating a loose network of groups and institutions that were apolitical on the surface, such as Quranic memorization circles, awareness groups, and summer camps, everyday activities that were viewed as non-threatening by the state became important spaces for the cultivation of political thought and activism. As Menoret writes, “The Islamic Awakening was the result of a myriad of individual and small-scale endeavors to re-enchant public life.”[vi] Taking apathy, boredom, and idleness as inputs, the Islamic Awakening, through innocuous religious and social activities, was able to install a sense of political consciousness.
There is a tendency among Westerners to associate the combination of political consciousness and Islamic thought with radical extremism and terrorism. It is in this context that, after the 9/11 attacks and throughout the War on Terror, the Saudi ruling elite was pressured by the United States to crackdown on the Islamic Awakening that had been organizing in the shadow of the state. Menoret writes:
“…[R]epression and liberalism were not two opposites but one and the same thing. It was for liberal reasons that the Saudi state cracked down on all manner of political activity: Al Saud and its allies systematically labeled activists as extremists or terrorists. It was for liberal reasons that the United States and its allies had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, for liberal reasons that the United States and the European Union were aiding some of the most repressive regimes on earth. Liberal repression and repressive liberalism were Saudi activists’ daily reality, which triggered both their rage and their apathy.”[vii]
In one of the more illuminating portions of the book, Menoret uses the state’s effort to reform youth summer camps as a case study for this marriage of liberalism and repression. Initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, summer camps were used to “escape state control and experiment with more liberated student activities,” according to Menoret.[viii] From the standpoint of Islamic activists, summer camps prevented extremism because they organized the time of idle, potentially dangerous youth. To them, the camps were useful arenas for young people to discover their own social usefulness, which the state had been trying to crush. However, after accusations from the Saudi press that they were breeding grounds for terrorism, they were eventually put under the control of the Ministry of Education. The summer camps, therefore, provided the battleground on which the state and Islamic activists would battle for young people’s time. From the perspective of the state, “In a repressive system, youthful energy was either with Al Saud or against them.”[ix] As Menoret argues, in an effort by the ruling family to continue and deepen the atomization and fragmentation of Saudi society, summer camps have strayed from their roots of sites for socialization. Today, they have become more like self-improvement centers where campers have “the Quran in one hand and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in another,” Menoret writes. “The summer camps… had had their contentious edge amputated by their administrators and been turned into training facilities: their politics had shifted from mass mobilization to self-help and individual change.”[x]
What Menoret observed so astutely in Saudi Arabia is a frightening manifestation of a global neoliberalism that has taken root in the ideological vacuum of the Cold War. It seems that the Saudi state has taken to heart Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Menoret even quotes one summer camp official as saying, “a student’s destiny is to join the job market and fulfil himself.” It is in this outright hostility to any semblance of Saudi society, social organization, or popular movements that Islamic activists have sought to build networks of solidarity. In the face of such hostility, however, Menoret concludes with a grim assessment: despite their efforts to organize in the cracks of the Saudi state, many of the activists that Menoret engaged with “retreated to the private sphere and decided to cultivate their own garden.”
What does Menoret mean when he likens Saudi Arabia to a graveyard? To him, under the threat of imprisonment and death, Saudi Arabia’s social, political, and even religious spheres have been more than put in a straightjacket: “The state has suspended them in a state between life and death, condemned to ‘the status of living dead.’” One of the reasons for the Awakening’s failure to gain meaningful traction has been the arrest and imprisonment of many of its foremost clerical and activist thinkers, Menoret points out. In September 2017, Salman al-Ouda – who makes frequent appearances throughout Graveyard – and other influential activists were arrested by Saudi officials, accused of spying and held without due process. Today, combined with the myriad structural factors that have forced organizers into the shadows, increased state persecution of activists and scholars under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has all but crushed the Islamic Awakening.
As Gabriel Winant writes in his brilliant essay “We Live in a Society,” for a political movement to take hold, activists must penetrate social organizations that already exist.[xi] Islamic life was therefore the obvious place to grow and spread an Islamic Awakening. But as Graveyard makes depressingly clear, it is extraordinarily difficult to organize in a country whose entire social and political geography has been rendered a cemetery. Menoret reminds us though that the Awakening was born in this cemetery, and it is for this reason we can be sure it will rise again. For in Saudi Arabia, Al Saud may rule, but la mubala reigns supreme.