GS Speaker Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Elham Manea (GS’20)

Dr. Elham Manea is a Middle East scholar, writer, and advocate for Saudi political prisoner Raif Badawi.

Interviewed by Hilary Miller.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Elham Manea (GS’20) stands out in the human rights arena. The internationally renown scholar’s rich insight and nuanced examinations of the interplay between the Islam and the West, and also of the complexities of the Middle East, complement her unambiguous calls for reform in countries spanning both regions. I spoke with Dr. Manea about key themes of her new book, titled The Perils of Nonviolent Islam, and the state of Saudi-US relations. We also discussed how Western democracies and activists around the world must continue to advocate for brave Saudi dissident, Raif Badawi, who begins his ninth year in prison this month.

For European members of our Geneva Summit community, click here to purchase Dr. Manea’s new book. For those in North America, click here.

Your new book, The Perils of Nonviolent Islamism, focuses on the interplay between the West and Islam, specifically European countries’ tolerance for nonviolent forms of Islamist fundamentalism that lay the groundwork for Islamist violence. It has received widespread praise, including from the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali who called it “a stirring wake-up call.” For many, you touch on an uncomfortable topic. People fear that saying the wrong thing or doing anything but, as you write, “insisting upon the infinite guilt of the West,” could lead to being “cancelled.” Can you share with our readers how your book speaks to this moment, and why it’s necessary to raise these issues as it relates to the promotion and protection of human rights?

I wrote the book during a very difficult time in 2015 at the peak of the Islamic State’s rise. During that time, policy makers’ focus was on Jihadi violence. While I understand the focus on that dimension, it’s important to recognize that there is also another form of Islamism that paves the ground for a form of cognitive radicalization and legitimizes the violence of the Jihadist as a far-right religious ideology.

In many Western liberal democracies, many Islamist movements have succeeded in presenting themselves as the sole group speaking for Muslims in the West. They insist there is only “one Islam” with no diversity in this great tradition that Muslims be treated as a “homogenous group” and they present their own Islamist demands as those of all Muslims. Often, Western policy makers oblige and treat these organizations as “representatives of all Muslims.” This in turn has ramifications as the Islamists’ stipulations undermine the secular human rights-based order of Western democracies and puts into question its greatest achievements, especially those concerning separation of state and religion, women’s rights and freedom of expression.

The reluctance of mainstream politicians to defend these norms and values, combined with the white man’s burden, which haunts leftists and liberals alike, has allowed these movements to spread their ideology within Muslim communities. And they use their Quran schools, youth activities, and mosques, and in the process succeed in separating Muslims from their general societies, transforming them into closed communities with their own parallel rules and norms. This type of Islamism provides the main ideological framework and worldviews of violent Islamism. This is the type of Islamism we must pay attention to.

In the book you write, “one cannot combat an ideology and fundamentalism by working with the very groups that promote that ideology.” You say this to describe Western countries’ relations with Saudi-funded Muslim brotherhood/Salafi representatives that turn a blind eye to rights abuses. How would you advise Western countries to reevaluate these relationships? How can democracies take a more principled stand against Islamist terrorism?

First, there is change in the scene. Gulf countries have been playing a very important role in the promotion of this form of religious ideology. But starting from around 2012 and 2013, there was a break in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood groups. This has to do with domestic calculation as Saudi Muslim Brotherhood members started to challenge its own regime in the Kingdom. Hence, the support ceased.

Today, it is countries such as Qatar and Turkey under Erdoǧan, who are playing a very important role in supporting and promoting the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, Kuwait is considered as the location of transitional Salafi movement. The government itself is not involved in this support but it tolerates this transitional movement on its soil.

This brings me to your question. Western policy makers have a tendency to designate certain Muslim organizations as gatekeepers in their relations with their Muslim citizens. Often, some of the organizations are Islamist movements. This approach is problematic and reminds of the Ottoman Empire millet system, where religious groups were organized in separate communities with their religious leaders as the gatekeepers and intermediaries between the state and the community. This system does not foster social cohesion nor lead to the equal citizenship rights.

The approach should be direct: these are citizens. So, let’s just treat these citizens in a direct manner without intermediaries. At same time, we need solutions regarding sensitive issues such as Imams’ education, and religious education. We need a form of professionalization. That professionalization can be done together with universities with known religious centers in a way that brings the diversity and richness of Islamic tolerance traditions. Islam is like any religion; it has its tolerant side and it has its violent side. The religious ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and that of the Salafi/Wahabi Islam, is selective and focuses on certain chapters of Islamic history. Islam, accordingly, is in a constant confrontation and battle with the outside world. We need a professionalization of the Imams’ education and religious curriculum to put a stop of this politicization of this world religion.

Did you receive any backlash to your book? And if so, what has the criticism been?

No. Not that I am aware of. I did many readings of this book, but one stands out for me. A presentation I did at the House of Religions in Bern. The organizers invited several Swiss Muslims to discuss it with me and the discussion was very constructive and fruitful That experience was a highlight for me.

I do hope that it comes across in the book that I do that with love, and I am trying to protect my religion and to put a stop to a far-right religious ideology that should be considered as such.

The spread of this religious ideology in Indonesia and Malaysia have had a direct impact on religious peace. Religious communities that used to live in peace and harmony for hundreds of years, suddenly started to have difficulties and suffer. Look at what’s taken place in certain areas in Africa. Mali, for instance, used to be known for its Sufi tradition. Look what is happening there. These are global changes and those who are suffering under these changes are none other than the people living in Muslim-majority countries, and that should concern us as well.

A few weeks ago, Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison. What direction do you think Saudi Arabia is going with its treatment of human rights defenders? Do you believe its trajectory is linear or contradictory?

It’s yet another chapter of a contradictory Saudi policies. The very people who were demanding changes that have become a reality in Saudi Arabia today are still languishing in prison. Loujain al-Hathloul was released as part of her sentence, as the court determined that she already spent much of that time. But other peaceful activists such as Samar Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair are still in prison.  

The release of Loujain al-Hathloul was interpreted as an olive branch to the Biden administration. This interpretation stands at odds with the continuous imprisonment of these peaceful activists.

Raif Badawi, one of the most famous political prisoners in the world jailed for advocating a more open society, is nearing his 9th year in Saudi prison and just turned 37. His children–now 13, 16 and 17–have lost their most formative years with their father. Ensaf Haidar, his wife, continues to campaign tirelessly for his release. Is there any sign of his freedom?

No. In fact, there are very worrying developments in his case. His international legal team has learned that Raif Badawi is being targeted with yet another investigation for “inciting public opinion” and “harming the reputation” of the Kingdom. You can understand my deep disappointment at these developments. Ensaf Haidar and his children are very worried that this could be a start of a new vicious cycle. Raif will complete nine years in prison this March 11. Imagine, nine years in prison for peacefully demanding liberal reforms in your country.

How can the new Biden administration pressure Saudi Arabia to release Raif and other prisoners, and more broadly improve its human rights record?

Biden has criticized Saudi Arabia from the very beginning of his campaign. But what he said as a prospect president may not correspond to his actions as the President. As a scholar covering this region, the relationship between the two countries can be described as a “Catholic marriage.” They have a difficult relationship and, nevertheless, they patch things because their interests are more important than their differences.

We should ask the question: Does the United States need Saudi Arabia as it did before? If you remember when 9/11 took place, there was harsh criticism against Saudi Arabia from the side of the United States. At the time I used to work as a radio journalist at Swiss Radio International, and I called a famous editor-in-chief in an Arabic newspaper—financed by Saudi Arabia—and the editor was of Lebanese origin, and I asked him, “What do you think about these developments? Should we really see an end to that relationship?” And he said, “No, give it a couple of months and it will be business as usual.” What he said is what happened. It took more than a couple of months, but the relationship did go back to business as usual.

Today, however, the US is not as dependent on Saudi oil as it was before. So we may see a more strained relationship, more tension, but the United States won’t be able to push so far because Saudi Arabia can easily turn to China. And the United States also needs Saudi Arabia for the stability of the Middle East and the Gulf region. I am a realist when it comes to international relations and frankly, I don’t expect much.

What can people do to support the campaign for Raif’s freedom? How can they contribute to the fight?

Talk to your government. Talk to your representatives. Make sure that his name is being used and mentioned on every platform. Make sure that he is not forgotten. This shouldn’t be accepted.

Be a voice for change and bring Raif Badawi, his name and his ordeal to the forefront.

Saudi Arabia ran for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council late last year. They were not elected by the General Assembly, which was surprising because often the world’s worst abusers are elected; China, Russia, Cuba, and Pakistan were elected last year. Could you speculate as to why you think the assembly of nations rejected Saudi Arabia’s bid this time around, when in the past they have been elected?

I was also surprised by this vote, but perhaps certain developments that took place went too far. You can ignore human rights violations when they are described in general terms, but when it comes to mincing a human being, Jamal Khashoggi, I think that becomes too much to stomach. Honestly, I was really surprised because the UN has shown us repeatedly that it doesn’t mind electing countries like China, Cuba, Pakistan and others that are violators of human rights to the Human Rights Council. From that perspective, singling out Saudi Arabia was an interesting development.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most misogynistic regimes. According to the 2020 Gender Gap Index—which measures national gender gaps on economic, health, education and political criteria—the country ranks 146/153. Yet European countries helped Saudi Arabia get elected to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, with Sweden even defending the election saying that they “ought to be there.” What do you make of European support for the regime?

The election fits an approach of conduct. The UN perspective of inclusion in such commissions may in fact push for reforms in the problem country itself. Whether that really leads to these reforms is a big question mark.

I think, nevertheless, Saudi Arabia with Mohammad Bin Salman in the last couple of years did introduce important reforms in the gender situation, and they did reflect positively on the lives of women in the Kingdom. But these reforms have more to do with the internal needs of Saudi Arabia rather than with its Human Rights Council’s membership.

Crown Prince Mohammad is driven by the need to diversify an ailing economy heavily dependent on oil. His objective is to turn the country into an attractive economic hub, while emphasizing local tourism and entertainment and women’s active participation in the labour force. All these objectives necessitate a relaxation of the draconian Wahhabi social control of society and of women’s mobility, and more favorable religious attitudes towards entertainment. So, we see that all the liberalization measures are meant to facilitate these objectives: curtailing the powers of the country’s religious police, ending the ban on women driving, relaxing—but not ending—the unrestricted male guardianship system over women so they can create their own businesses without male permission, and ending the 35-year ban on cinema and art performances.

At the same time, these measures are helping to widen the popular base of support for the Crown Prince because both the youth and women welcome these reforms.

What does the Geneva Summit mean to you as a platform?

This is one of the most important platforms that provided our campaign with a voice, with reach, with real prominence to bring the case of Raif Badawi to the world. I will remain forever grateful to this platform because it helped bring Raif’s case worldwide; it made it very prominent.

At the same time the Geneva Summit has helped all of us, those who are working in the human rights field, to come together. Because of the Summit, I have gotten to know people working in other fields on human rights issues, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity because it made us realize we are one community working together for this wonderful world. I am grateful for what the Geneva Summit did for Raif, and what it continues to do for Raif.