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Pascal Menoret, Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia

Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2020, 250 pages
Philippe Pétriat
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Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia : Pascal Menoret.- Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020.- 250 pages.

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1Six years after his thought-provoking book on urban male youth culture in Saudi Arabia and competition between young men and the State for control of urban spaces, Pascal Menoret once more immerses his reader in the suburbs of Riyadh to challenge our understanding of Islamic activism. Delving into exceptional fieldworks conducted between 2005 and 2016, Pascal Menoret gives a unique anthropological account of what his interlocutors call “Islamic action”. With fascinating empathy and continual self-awareness, Graveyard of Clerics follows the intellectual path and social career of young male urban activists from the beginnings of the Saudi Sahwa in the 1960s to its heyday in the 1990s and finally to its brutal repression by the State in the 2000s, a chronological approach which is echoed in the book’s four-part structure.

2In line with his previous work, Pascal Menoret focuses on political action and its geography rather than ideology, eventually preferring the notion of “Islamic action” to “Islamism”. He chooses to concentrate on processes and organizations enabling young Saudis to identify themselves as Islamic activists, rather than on their purported ideology and political objectives. As explained in the last chapter of the book, he reverses common approaches to Islamic activism by giving precedence to a bottom-up inquiry into local grassroots organizations, “rank and file” activists and their everyday concerns.

3Pascal Menoret challenges our understanding of the State’s confrontation with activists and elaborates further on arguments that had first been articulated in Joyriding by exploring the “complex relationships between activism, repression, and urban planning” (p. 42). He frequently gets off the beaten track of existing literature on Saudi Arabia and Islamism when he concentrates on activists of the late 2000s such as Fawwaz and Yusuf (p. 187) and tracks the growing dissatisfaction of these “post-Muslim Brothers” with the Muslim Brothers and Salafi organizations that they had enthusiastically joined in the 1980s and 1990s. His empathy enables him to unpack the rationale and potential of suburban youth’s indifference (chapter 3 and Conclusion) to politics. Activist experience thereby questions many ideas about Islamic revival in Saudi Arabia and its imported versus indigenous contents and methods (chapter 3 on the Muslim Brothers in Saudi Arabia; chapter 8 on mosque “libraries”). The young men’s successive identifications with both movements blur commonly accepted distinctions between the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood movements in Saudi Arabia. Events such as the 2005 municipal elections (skilfully studied in chapters 9 and 10) illuminate the way members of both movements imitated each other to subvert electoral regulations originally designed to diminish their political weight.

  • 1 ‘Awad al-‘Usaymi novel, Tuyur al-Ghasaq, Dar Athar li-l-nashr wa-l-tawzi‘, al-Dammam, 2011 (French (...)

4The Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) emerged in the 1960s as Saudi cities entered into a phase of suburban sprawling that is still ongoing now. Menoret’s insightful account of the suburban atmosphere in Riyadh strikingly echoes the literary and sharp description of the set-up in Mecca1 in ‘Awad al-‘Usaymi’s novel Twilight Birds. Although planned suburbanization was designed by the Saudi State and its European and American advisors as way of locking citizens into atomized superblocks preventing collective mobilization, car-based suburbs nonetheless provided an environment conducive to grassroots Islamic organizations. Car mobility enabled activists to gather in spite of suburban expansion. Not only were cars the basic units of Islamic activities; this “bonding device” was instrumental in the internal promotion of their owners into the hierarchical organization of Muslim Brothers and Salafi groups.

5High-school awareness groups, readers clubs and summer camps, meticulously described in part 3 of the book, provided young Saudi men (Menoret did not have access to women’s groups) with a means to access culture (“nobody reads outside the mosque or other religious institutions”, p. 119) and escape from the hold of their family and oppressive suburban relegation. Islamic activism provided them with references to address their problems and debate about reforms, turning suburban boredom and indifference into a political resource to mobilize Saudi youth.

6Since the 1990s and the ensuing Saudi State enrolment into the “global war on terror”, however, a new wave of “individualized” and “decentralized” State repression targeted Islamic activism, although it kept working hand in hand with ongoing suburban fragmentation. Its effect was to lock public debates into conservative preoccupations (gender mixing, opening of cafés, control of the behavior of young boys and girls) during the above-mentioned 2005 elections and generally to deter any discussion about public services, infrastructures and corruption in poorly endowed areas of Saudi cities. This moral and conservative repertoire proved to be a deadlock for Sahwa activists entering elections. In the end, it undermined collective mobilization for political reforms that were on the agenda during the 1990s.

  • 2 Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, Chicago, Hay (...)

7State institutions fought hard to regain control of Islamic activities by drawing on new neoliberal principles in vogue. Summer Camps and curricular activities were deprived of their contentious transformative objectives. Pascal Menoret emphasizes the rationale of self-help methods in State supervised Summer Camps and the privilege now given to normativity and vocational training over faith and Islamic culture (chapters 17 and 18). Here and elsewhere in the book, readers with an interest in the Gulf political economy might regret that Graveyard of Clerics does not expand Menoret’s insights on Saudi society and politics and articulates broader arguments by drawing further on related scholarship such as, for instance, Adam Hanieh’s inquiry into the link between neoliberalism and the changing forms of authoritarianism in Gulf countries.2

8The end of the 1990s-style Islamic activism does not seem to be ascribable only to the powerful and invasive State repression, however. This is one of the book’s remarkable insights, for the deadlock of Islamic activism is also attributable to the disappointment felt by activists noting, in the 2000s, the absence of any political progress in the reformist agenda that has been defended by Salafi and Muslim Brothers groups (democratization, rule of law and Islamic social justice) for more than 20 years with no reward but violent repression. They also grew dissatisfied with organizations now perceived as too hierarchical and exclusive, with leading clerical figures now toeing the line drawn by the Saudi State in order not to be deprived of their freedom or tortured. The acknowledgement of failure, or what some analyzed as the closing of “the window of opportunity” (as told by the member of post-Muslim Brothers club, p. 193), led disappointed activists to adopt more extreme forms of activism and others to “leave Islamic activism behind.” (p. 167).

9Although Menoret mentions the general fatigue of ex-activists, now grown men in their forties with family and professional concerns, their many clubs appear as extremely weakly institutionalized and, in the end, dependent on individual figures whose renunciation usually meant the end of the group’s activities and the dispersal of its members. Quite to the contrary, other activists chose to remain committed to Salafi- and Muslim Brothers-affiliated organizations because they feel deeply attached to strongly institutionalized organizations and, in spite of their disappointment, see those organizations as the only purveyors of human resource and space for a political and intellectual career – albeit now for very gradual and consensual action.

10The reader will probably wish Pascal Menoret had extended his work after 2016 since his conclusion rightly alludes to lively and still dissenting forms of Islamic activism surviving “in the cracks of religious and educational institutions” (p. 207). In any case, his book has made evident that the resilience of this multi-faceted activism is no longer attributable to the resistance of dissident “clerics” who have been constantly criminalized or brought under State control since the 1990s.

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Notes

1 ‘Awad al-‘Usaymi novel, Tuyur al-Ghasaq, Dar Athar li-l-nashr wa-l-tawzi‘, al-Dammam, 2011 (French translation by Nathalie Bontemps, Les Oiseaux du crépuscule, Erick Bonnier, Paris, 2019)

2 Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2013 and Money, Markets and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Pascal Menoret, Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/6483 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6483

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Philippe Pétriat

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