Is Saudi Arabia modern?

Toby Jones, professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers University, lectured about the assumptions of culture, religion and government of Saudi Arabia last Thursday in the Social Sciences Building.

Jones’ presentation, the second-to-last lecture in the College’s politics forum series, was titled “Has Saudi Arabia Ever Been Modern?” a title that Jones claims to be “problematic.” He focused his lecture on “the role and politics of the idea of being modern and modernity in Saudi Arabia.”

He said the terms “modern” and “traditional” are used often when discussing the Middle East due to the fact that they appear to be self-explanatory.

“What does trouble me about these terms is the way we use them to describe political movements . especially how we use them to expect and assume outcomes,” Jones said.

Jones equated these assumptions with the ones often made regarding Islamic terrorism.

“Modern is the West,” Jones said when describing Western thought, “and everything that’s not modern is the not-West. We’re not the only ones who use these terms. This has become a universal set of categories.”

He then moved his lecture into a discussion of the Saudi Arabian use of these terms. First, he asked the audience to describe how they view Saudi Arabia.

Some of the responses were “religious,” “austere” and “traditional.” Jones then argued that these views have been assumed by the West to have always been in place.

“Saudi Arabia actually has a long and complicated 20th century history,” Jones said. “Religion has not played the same role over the century.”

Jones pinpointed the major changes in Saudi Arabian culture toward a “militant Islamic phenomenon” to as recent as the late 1970s and early 1980s. He said that this religious zeal sprang from a “secular government effort.”

He argued that one of the events that leading to this was the Shiite uprising of 1979, which occurred after years of discrimination and marginalization while the rest of Saudi Arabia was experiencing economic prosperity from the oil reserves.

“Tens of thousands of Shiites took to the streets over the course of 10 days,” Jones said, “because they were excluded from the process of modernization.”

In actuality, Jones said, the Shiites did not want to overthrow the Saudi government, but be included.

Following this event, the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia “became so disillusioned” by the rapid modernization that they staged a military takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s most holy site.

“They claimed that Saudi Arabia had actually become victimized by the glare of Western modernity,” Jones said, and they stressed a refocus on Islam.

“The Saudis get nervous,” Jones explained. “Instead of fight back, they co-op this effort and make it their own.”

The message of “modernity is bad, it corrodes the morals” was adopted by both the Saudi government and the Shiites, Jones claimed.

“So the stereotypes (the West have) don’t come from the deep roots of 20th century Islam,” Jones explained.

Instead, he said, this sense, or perception of a strict, traditional Islamic force springs from the fact that the Saudi Arabian government never fostered “the idea that everyone has rights as citizens within the community. There was no sense of nationalism . or a sense of belonging.”

The state, instead, “appropriates the mantle of a traditional community steeped in ancient past” yet at the same time wants to be modern. The Saudi Arabian government has insisted that these two ideals are in conflict with one another, but Jones claimed that “these things aren’t inherently contradictory.”

This binary between tradition and modernity “is a creation” by the state though now “the disillusioned are using this argument against the state. The state is in a pickle,” Jones said.

“We have to look at where these things come from instead of . using them to predict outcomes and actions,” Jones argued.

The presentation then opened up to the audience for a question and answer session. When one audience member asked about the inability to consider the West a modern example when currently looking at Saudi Arabian culture, Jones insisted, “There is no true definition of modernity. Why does there have to be?”

Jones then pointed out that the current cultural norms, such as the great lack of women’s rights and equality, perceived by the West to be traditional in Saudi Arabia are modern constructs that have nothing to do with ancient Islam.

“I don’t know a lot about Saudi Arabia so it was interesting to learn about its history and politics,” Abigail Nanquil, freshman international studies major said. “I may do some research on it on my own now.”