Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Writing Saudi Arabian History

Last February, Madawi al-Rasheed wrote an article about the politics of history in Saudi Arabia. Here's a sample:
"Post colonial states draw on both national struggle and the construction of national identity and culture by intellectuals to produce the foundation of the nation state, on the basis of which one finds a justification for the inclusion of diverse people in the polity.

"Saudi Arabia differs from other countries in the Middle East. Saudis had never been involved in a national struggle against a foreign occupier. In fact the project of the state under the Al-Saud leadership was from the very beginning part and parcel of a colonial project. The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the ascendancy of Britain in the region are important factors that triggered off the formation of the current state. Over the last eighty years or so the Saudi royal family created a unified and centralised state not a nation. This history has important repercussions on the identity of the people who now call themselves Saudis.

"From the perspective of the ruling group, unity was achieved by the sword. The Al-Saud often remind their subjects that they have the right to rule because the land belonged to their ancestors. The state of 1932 was simply an attempt to return to the land which is theirs. The state under their leadership is simply an exercise in re-appropriating what was initially owned by their ancestors. Here, the notion of milkiyya (ownership) dominate narratives relating to the foundation of the state.

"However, this is not enough to convince the constituency of the legitimacy of the project. The Saudi royal family relies on another narrative, produced by a generation of religious scholars who in the past played the role of intellectuals, literate men in a pre-literate society. A small circle of ulama, often referred to as aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya (the Imams of the Najdi call), interpret Islam in its Wahhabi version. They claim to possess sacred knowledge, like elders, shamans, healers, and magicians who are often the “intellectuals’ of pre-modern society. They developed a sacred narrative that legitimated the concept of milkiyya – ownership – by the Al-Saud."

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