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The Other Islamic State, Our Ally

Why has Ashraf Fayadh, a poet and artist, been sentenced to death? A court of law found him “guilty on five charges that included spreading atheism, threatening the morals of . . . society and having illicit relations with women”: he has been branded an apostate, for which the penalty is death. Where did this happen?

Maybe Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS? Good guess, but no; it happened in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Nor, of course, was this horrifying sentence an outlier; on the contrary. By one reckoning, lately the Saudi courts have handed down “highest recorded number of executions in the kingdom since 1995.” Some notable recent cases of Saudi “justice” have included:

The public flogging of a liberal blogger; a death sentence for a protester for offenses committed as a minor; and a sentence of 350 blows for a British man who was arrested with alcohol in his car. (The Briton was released this month after spending more than a year in prison, averting the threatened flogging.)

Yes, there are many differences between Saudi Arabia and ISIS. The first is a monarchy, the second believes itself a true “caliphate”, or Islamist regime. Saudi Arabia carries out floggings and beheadings without splashy, macabre propaganda videos, unlike ISIS. Saudi Arabia spends hundreds of millions on religious schools and books advancing its strain of Islamic totalitarianism worldwide; ISIS operatives spend a lot of time leveraging social media. The Saudi regime purports to be a US ally; ISIS is at war with the West. These and umpteen other differences are real. They are overwhelmed, however, by the deeper commonality: the shared commitment to the political supremacy of Islamic law, sharia.

That’s a fundamental causal factor, from which a great many consequences follow. And that factor would have to inform any serious thinking about our policy toward Saudi Arabia. Yet that regime has enjoyed an underserved standing as our ally, for many years. President George W. Bush embraced the Saudi regime, even hosting a member of the ruling family at his ranch. President Obama has (literally) bowed in deference to the Saudi king, while viewing the regime as an ally. What explains our irrational approach to Saudi Arabia?

A significant part of the answer lies in a perverse mindset, which Ayn Rand characterized as being “concrete-bound.” (See here and here.) In foreign policy, that mindset sees only scattered dots, never the trend lines that unite them (such as the decades-long ascent of Islamic totalitarianism across the Middle East); it sees discrete unrelated crises, not a sustained campaign (such as the escalating spiral of jihadist attacks in the years prior to 9/11); it sees only particular superficial features of regimes and Islamist factions, discounting the unifying role of their philosophic ideas (which animate the Islamist movement’s diverse factions and state-sponsors). What this fractured mindset avoids is the integration of data into a conceptual perspective. And so, the essential similarity in ideology between Saudi Arabia and ISIS is left unseen, and it is purposely disregarded when inconvenient facts — like a death sentence for a poet — unavoidably intrude.

(Originally published on Times of Israel.)