Mobilizations in suburban Saudi Arabia

Far from being unified around the principles of Wahabbism, Saudi Arabia is experiencing deep social divisions. Islamist militants thrive on the peri-urban margins of Saudi cities.

The authoritarianism of princes, the apathy of society, fundamentalism… these are the angles often chosen to evoke Saudi Arabia. Pascal Ménoret prefers others. After the revolt of urban youth, the subject of his previous book, he tackles in Graveyards of Clerics. Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia daily mobilizations with a religious reference, contributing once again and in a masterful way to shattering a certain number of preconceived ideas about this country.

Firstly, the establishment of the Wahhabi doctrine as a state religion did not prevent the emergence of a protest in the Sunni ranks of the population, far from the “Islamic utopia” (p. 8) that it claims to embody Saudi Arabia since its founding. This protest, which arose in the 1960s from a convergence between local Salafist factions and members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is called the “Islamic awakening” (sahwa islamiya). This movement is particularly opposed to the modernization policy driven by the monarchy, the latter’s military alliance with the United States and the policy of Israel. The repression that has strongly targeted it since the 1990s has not made the movement disappear, which even placed itself at the head of the 2005 municipal elections, revealing its strong local roots. If the West became aware of this internal Islamic opposition to Saudi Arabia through the action of its most radical fringes in 1979 during the capture of Mecca and in 2003 during the attacks in Riyadh, there is a lot of ignorance remains about the numerous “ordinary” activists who claim to be Islamists, but who do not take terrorist action, about their modes of politicization and socialization as well as their territorialization. It is the purpose of this book to enlighten us on this point.

Secondly, what is at stake in the assemblies of the “Islamic awakening” is indeed political opposition. This too, Westerners have difficulty in understanding. The motivations of Islamist militants are in fact often more secular and political than religious; it is these which, beyond the mosque, push certain individuals to frequent the “Islamic conscience groups” which are formed at the university or even the ” summer camps » organized in the summer, by the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, around the big cities. Ménoret shows to what extent these “groups” and “camps” function as a lever for the emancipation of youth and distrust of institutions, as an arena for politicization from below in short. And it is above all in this capacity, he believes he knows, that the government, through the inspectors sent by the Ministry of Education, is waging a “war against Islamist activities” (p. 133) made up of recurring checks, sanctions and imprisonments.

The main interest of the book is to explore the spatial dimension of these mobilizations. Urban space is not only considered by Ménoret as the framework or the setting of Islamic activism, but as the socio-spatial structure which, in the sense of Henri Lefebvre, determines and influences it. The way in which the city developed in Saudi Arabia provided the conditions for the emergence of Islamic militancy. Like the joyriders engaging in automobile acrobatics on the highways of Riyadh thus diverting urban infrastructure into a playground, Islamist militants have made the city, even in its peri-urban margins, a “resource space”. While everything is done to separate and disperse populations, since the first gated communities built on a principle of racial segregation by Aramco in the 1940s to the subsidies granted to individual houses and automobiles, passing through the destruction of historic city centers and the generalization of the orthogonal plan and superblocks, the activists nevertheless managed to gather and organize themselves in the peri-urban neighborhoods. “ Instead of being quiet, depoliticized communities, these new suburbs became sites of mobilization and, sometimes, dramatic unrest » (p. 53). The car, the street, the school, the neighborhood, and the summer camp, in a diffuse and difficult-to-control territorial configuration, form the “landscape of Islamic activism” (p. 208). The latter is made up of hybridizations – the religious activist and the urban rodeo enthusiast are sometimes the same person (‘Adel in the work) – and convergences, as shown by certain interactions between Salafists and Muslim Brothers frequenting the same daily territories. The Islamist movement, a true peri-urban emanation, nonetheless remains fragmented today, as is paroxysmically the city in Saudi Arabia.

If Graveyards of Clerics contributes enormously to the understanding of the “Islamic awakening” and its evolution in time and space, it is above all constructed from a succession of individual trajectories. The words of the respondents are abundant, to the point of obscuring those of the author in certain pages. But it is only in this way that we can really understand the meaning of the commitment to the daily life of a “suburban” Arabia. Some activists may thus choose to distance themselves from Islamic activism, not only because repression has intensified with what the regime has called “the war against terror”, in which all oppositions are lumped together, but also sometimes because of internal dissensions within the movement, or more liberal and reforming aspirations of some who turn more readily towards “clubs” focused on human rights, social justice or democratization. The reader then inevitably empathizes with these men torn between the desire for intellectual independence and the difficulty of completely emancipating themselves from the places of Islamic mobilization so intimately linked to their urban experience. Others will perhaps move to the margins of the margins, where we hear the tires of stolen cars squealing, or even into web activism, it being understood that, in both cases, this means exposed to the most ferocious repression. If thousands of Islamic activists have been imprisoned since the 1970s, making Saudi Arabia a “cemetery for clerics”, a phrase by the Palestinian writer Al-Maqdisi which Ménoret made his title, they are today largely joined by human rights activists, bloggers and other prisoners of conscience.

Upon finishing the reading, some questions remain: what role did women play – to which the author was unable to gain access during his investigation – in these Islamic mobilizations when their voices are increasingly heard elsewhere? How do the activists met by Ménoret view the protest actions of the Shiite minority in the kingdom, affected by the shockwave of the Arab Spring in 2011? What place does the international action of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman occupy in the criticism, at a time of the stalemate in Yemen and the diplomatic rapprochement with Israel? New ethnographies would be needed to tell, but their conduct is likely to become more complicated in the future given the violent nature of the repressive apparatus that is currently descending on society. For the time being, we will therefore have to be content with this remarkable and necessary work of political and urban anthropology.