A squat and priggish man of 46, Abdul Lateef Al Kindi has a thick salt-and-pepper beard and a reputation for causing controversy. During a sermon last August at his mosque in Srinagar—one of the capitals of Kashmir, and its largest city—he evoked the spirit of Islam as observed fourteen centuries ago, in the Prophet’s time, and demanded a total break from local traditions. He railed against the veneration of the tombs and relics of saints—common practice in Kashmir—as vestiges of ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies with no place in Islam.
Historically, Kashmir has been dominated by Sufi Islam, a mystical branch of the faith that the puritanically minded abhor. But Al Kindi plans to change all that. In a region already wracked by internal division and foreign pressure, he represents yet another potentially destabilizing force: orthodox Salafism, aggressively expansionist and imported from Saudi Arabia.
From “Purifying Kasmir,” a dispatch by Tariq Mir (Boston Review, May/June 2012)
Last spring, a young Saudi named Muhammad al-Wadani posted a YouTube video of himself calling for democracy, human rights, and more jobs. Echoing Egyptian protesters, he declared, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” On March 7, shortly before a national day of protest planned online, he emerged from the al-Rajhi mosque in central Riyadh with a group of followers. Smiling and wearing an immaculate long white shirt, he held high a sign calling for peaceful demonstration. He was soon overwhelmed by plainclothes and bearded security forces who dragged him into their car and drove him to an unknown location.
Al-Wadani’s Dawasir tribal elders rushed to Riyadh to renew their allegiance to the regime. They issued a statement disowning their son as irresponsible and prey to outside influence. In the Arabian Peninsula, defying the aging leadership amounts to the rejection of parental authority and God. The consequences are banishment and withdrawal of family support, protection, and financial help.
The message was clear. March 11—the intended “Day of Rage”—came and went without mass protest. Al-Wadani disappeared without a trace.
Those Saudis expecting the Arab Spring to bloom in their country were no doubt disappointed. Using its classic strategies—anti-Shia religious rhetoric, a powerful and Western-trained security force, and economic handouts—the regime crushed any signs of an uprising.
The success of this carefully orchestrated response shows stark differences between Abdullah’s kingdom and the recently fallen dictatorships of the Arab world. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has no civil society of any significance. As a result, online calls to protest—beloved of so many “cyber-utopians”—had no place to take root.
This is how the revolutionaries were swept away with the sandstorms.
From “No Saudi Spring: Anatomy of a Failed Revolution" by Madawi Al-Rasheed (Boston Review, March/April 2012)
The Occupy Wall Street protests are not visible in our cities now, but their remarkable impact is clear for all to see. Large questions about the fairness of our economic system, once excluded from conversations among “serious people,” have been restored to a prominent place in public discussion. But questions do not answer themselves. What can we do to reduce the stark inequalities that have grown over the past 30 years? That is the topic of this issue’s New Democracy Forum.
The conventional policy response focuses on increased taxes for top earners. In his lead article, David Grusky—Stanford professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality—aims to move the debate in a different direction. He argues that an exclusive focus on a “tax-based redistributive agenda” narrows OWS’s complaint. It is also misguided. Americans do not like tax hikes. Moreover, growing income inequality has been driven largely by pre-tax income. So focusing on taxes is too little, too late. The more fundamental problem lies in the way we organize our markets: they are rife with corruption, bottlenecks, and artificial barriers to competition, all of which conspire to generate extravagant returns (“rents”) for the wealthy. Grusky points to our systems of higher education and executive compensation as striking examples. And he describes institutional reforms that would address unfair income inequality where it starts.
Respondents raise a wide range of sharp objections: that inequality is not an appropriate focus of public policy; that increased tax rates would also reduce pre-tax inequality; that markets are always politically structured and that the ideal of perfect competition as a solvent for rents is illusory; and that Grusky’s proposals do not go far enough to address the roots of unfair returns. In the end, the right answers to these questions remain unsettled. But the forum advances the debate by getting the right questions on the table.
With Madawi Al-Rasheed’s article, we shift attention to last year’s aborted revolt in Saudi Arabia. Inspired by successes in Egypt and Tunisia, Saudis began pressing for representative government, equality, and jobs. Their Arab Spring gathered momentum with online calls for nonviolent mass protest. But as Al-Rasheed shows, the protests were killed by a mix of intimidation, religious rhetoric, and economic handouts, even before Saudis moved to the streets. The protests were limited, ultimately, by the absence of a Saudi civil society—the labor unions and civic organizations so crucial to success elsewhere.
In his contribution to the forum, Glenn Loury suggests that a robust civil society—with rich public discussion—may be essential to all reform: “It doesn’t make much sense to think about rents and market failures when inequality is mainly a product of our impoverished ideas about autonomy, community, and solidarity.” Whether mainly a product or partly a product: ideas matter.
Boston Review Co-Editors Deb Chasman and Joshua Cohen introduce the March/April 2012 issue.