The eleventh day of September 2001 seems a distant memory now. On that day, 19 hijackers unleashed mayhem in the skies over the United States of America. Fifteen of these 19 hijackers, it would later be discovered, were Saudi citizens. Yet the war that ensued, that cast its bloody fingers deep into the Middle East and South Asia, would not be a war against Saudis. It was instead against Afghans, Iraqis and, at least via remote control, Pakistanis.
Much of the world, at least those portions of the world that matter, that are listened to, that construct the narratives of conflict, did not seem to balk at this fact or its incongruity to the politics of blame and expiation that have dominated the world since the 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia remained best friends with the US, its oil industry lubricating the latter’s economy.
Last week, the scourge of terror that has seeped into every pore of the rest of the Muslim world made Saudi Arabia its target. Near the end of Ramazan, three bombings occurred in the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Qatif and Madina. Four security guards were killed and four others wounded in the Madina attack, which took place ominously close to the mosque of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), one of Islam’s most sacred sites. The bombing in Qatif targeted a Shia mosque and the one in Jeddah took place near the US consulate.
In both the Qatif and Jeddah attack, the bombers were not able to execute the attack and succeeded in killing only themselves. The three bombings in three different parts of Saudi Arabia all took place within 24 hours. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility (as with attacks in Dhaka and Istanbul) the modus operandi of the attack aligned with the usual tactics of the militant Islamic State group.
Pakistanis are weak, their lives are cheap and they can provide at best a feeble response to the aspersions Saudi Arabia casts on them.
In the days since the attack Saudi authorities have been busy rounding up suspects. According to a report published by Al Jazeera, 19 people had been arrested by July 9. Of these 19, 12 are Pakistani and the remainder are Saudi citizens. In addition, Saudi authorities claim that the Jeddah bomber was also a Pakistani named Abdullah Gulzar Khan, who had been working in the kingdom for the past 12 years. The suspect was reported to have worn a suicide belt before he blew himself up.
The inordinate scrutiny placed on Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia is likely to become an even larger problem. Even when criminal charges are not terrorism-based, the Saudi legal system is opaque, providing few explanations of charges or records of proceedings. Owing in part to their inferior status in the kingdom and the intractability of its legal system in general, over 2,000 Pakistanis already languish in Saudi jails with 10 or more executed every year. The 12 arrested last week will simply join their ranks, the truth of the allegations against them never properly explained, the details of trials and prosecutions never communicated to the consulates of a poor country like Pakistan.
There are good reasons for the Saudi effort to pin the blame on Pakistanis. For instance, it permits Saudi Arabia to deflect the truth that in past years its propagation of an orthodox version of Islam via countless religious schools around the world has contributed to the creation of the jihadi mindset, whose pupils increasingly if not always provide cannon fodder for suicide bombers who have struck targets across the world.
According to an article published last year in World Affairs Journal, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, (either officially or via private donors) has funded madressahs and religious centres that have then been used for recruitment by extremist groups. The article quotes US Vice President Joe Biden as estimating the Saudi contribution to jihadi groups as being at “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons”. Increasingly defensive about its own contribution to the very threat that is now at its doorstep, Saudi royals like King Salman have tried to deflect blame by saying that they cannot be held responsible if the money they gave for good causes is appropriated into the cause of extremism and ‘jihad’.
Blaming Pakistanis is probably another portion of this strategy of deflecting blame; of responding to the premise that the seeds they planted have grown into an invasive species that wants to throttle the gardener itself. Pakistanis are weak, their lives are cheap and they can provide at best a feeble response to the aspersions Saudi Arabia casts on them.
At a time when Saudi Arabia is investing in national unity, painting the foreign worker as a potential terrorist serves to justify the already despicable treatment allotted to them. Predictably, all other Muslim countries and even Pakistanis themselves quietly and submissively accept this role; those who speak out loud and clear about European and American excesses heaped on immigrant Muslims maintain pin-drop silence when it comes to Saudi mistreatment. The self-appointed guardians of Islam’s holy sites, it is assumed, must be holy and beyond reproach.
For Pakistanis, it is ironic that Saudi Arabia leads the ‘Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism’. Unlike even Western countries, whose excesses against alleged terror suspects, whose unauthorised bombings of this or that country have received attention and criticism in the global public sphere, Saudi Arabia retains its air of sanctity.
Given this, whether it is air strikes that kill civilians in Yemen, or the easy implication of Pakistani foreign workers as terrorists, there appears to be no one who can chide the kingdom or check its power. Pakistanis, reviled yesterday as foreign and poor or deficiently Muslim, can now be made scapegoats in the Saudi war on terror, accused and indicted, not necessarily for their guilt but simply because it is so very easy to blame them, punish them, persecute them.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2016