Pascal Menoret, Graveyard of Clerics: Everyday Activism in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2020). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Pascal Menoret (PM): I started writing Graveyard of Clerics in 2015, the year of the terrorist attacks in France and of “Je suis Charlie.” I wanted to write ethnographically about Islamic movements in a charged period, during which time what Westerners call “Islamism” was more and more perceived as an absolute political evil, as an example of “bad Islam,” as opposed to an Islam that would be “good,” i.e. apolitical, liberal, assimilated. In view of the general neocolonial mood, I thought I should revisit my fieldwork experiences with Islamic movements in Saudi Arabia, where I spent several years between 2005 and 2010 studying various forms of activism, from film buffs to Islamic activists to joyriders. What interested me was that, in the Western—and Arab—imagination, Saudi Islamic movements were considered as an extreme example of “bad Islam,” as the origin of “wars of religion” that would “devastate Europe,” a fantasy that can be traced all the way back to the Marquis de Sade. So I wanted to walk in the shoes of these activists, the baddest of the bad, if you will, and see what would happen.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

PM: “Graveyard of clerics,” maqbarat al-‘ulama’, is an allegory that several Islamic activists have used to talk about Saudi Arabia. Against the general perception of the country as a religious paradise, Palestinian jihadist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi responded that it was “a graveyard of clerics and a prison for preachers.” The year was 1989, and Maqdisi was warning his readers against the growing influence of the United States in the Middle East. According to him, the Saudi rulers used clerics as a “fig leaf” and a “smokescreen” to hide their military alliance with the West. Religion was the opium of the people, and Al-Maqdisi was telling believers to put some distance between themselves and the House of Saud. A few years later, Yemeni Salafi Muqbil al-Wadi’i wrote that Saudi preachers should emigrate to the United States, because Saudi Arabia had become a graveyard of clerics. Yemen had been the graveyard of the Turks thanks to its resistance to Ottoman imperialism; in Saudi Arabia the empire had already won, and religion had been put in the grave. These activists would probably agree with more recent descriptions of Saudi Arabia as a secularist system, by Madawi Al Rasheed for instance.

So in a sense, this is a book about Saudi Arabia’s devastating secularism, but I take a detour through Islamic activism and the built environment. I use the graveyard as a spatial allegory to help the reader grasp the shocking transformation of Saudi cities since the 1970s. And I start with a simple observation: Islamic movements emerged as Saudi cities turned into sprawling suburbs, with massive highways, single family houses, and shopping malls. I ask: is there a link? My colleagues often see the rise of Islamic movements in sync with religious doctrines or geopolitical changes. I put the cursor elsewhere: I look at activism and space. I ask: what in sprawling suburbs favors the emergence of Islamic activism? What in the suburban graveyard of clerics prompts new forms of religious engagement?

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

PM: Cars were still a crucial fieldwork tool here, as they were in Joyriding in Riyadh, my previous book. Over the years I borrowed or owned eight different cars in Saudi—that is how important cars are to daily life in Riyadh. And car mobility is key to activism: the smallest unit of an Islamic movement is not the “family,” like in Egypt, but the “car,” a subgroup composed of a driver and four passengers who commute together from their homes to the school or the mosque where they regroup. The commute is a spatiotemporal interstice that activists invest in, organizing dedicated car activities to not lose this time. The Saudi Islamic movement is as suburban as skateboarding or joyriding.

As I did in Joyriding in Riyadh, I look at the urban history to understand current mobilizations. But I also replace Islamic activism in the continuity of other radical political movements, in particular the Saudi labor movement, which emerged in the 1940s against the growing influence of Bechtel and Standard Oil of California in the country. US corporations reorganized the urban geography, which became more fragmented, with racial enclaves, swimming pools, and movie theaters that were off limit for Saudis. Suburbanization and the extension to the Saudi middle class of some of the white privileges of the US managerial class were an answer to political mobilization, as was the de-Saudization of the labor force, which from the 1970s on became almost exclusively foreign and more easily controllable and disposable. The book argues that Islamic activism is both an adaptation to suburbanization and a revolt against it. The Saudi disciplinary dream created docile citizens who buy cars, homes, appliances, and see themselves above an imported working class. From the 1960s on, Islamic activists used the new suburbs to organize a counter-society, away from this materialist mainstream, and connected to the influx of international students to the new Islamic universities of Medina, Mecca, and Riyadh. Salafism was not this Central Arabian movement that contaminated the world thanks to petrodollars—quite the opposite. Salafism was from the outset a transnational movement, composed of students and activists from across the global south and north. It was the distinct Saudi participation in the global radical 1960s. Graveyard of Clerics, like Joyriding in Riyadh, is an ethnography of Saudi agency in the face of global and local power.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PM: The book speaks to specialists of social movements in urban settings. It documents the complex relation between Islamic movements and their urban and suburban environment. It is also directed to a wider audience. I wrote the book in an accessible language, against the idea that, in order to understand contemporary political activism in the Arab world, you would need to know the Arabic language or Islamic doctrines. You just need a fair dose of common sense and empathy—and since I do not doubt my readers’ common sense, I give them the means to exercise their empathy, in particular by quoting the long, recorded interviews I conducted with activists over the years. I wanted to give readers access to the empirical material on which I built some of my analyses. Ideally, this would have been a much longer volume! My literary model was a 1970 noir Boston novel, George Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which the dialogue takes up eighty percent of the text (according to Dennis Lehane, who is certainly exaggerating). But that was the idea: to expose readers to voices they had probably not yet heard.

J: How do you want your readers to think about Islamism after reading your book? 

PM: In the literature today, there are two main ways to look at Islamic activism: either as a medieval resurgence and a reactionary movement, or as an adaptation to liberal modernity in the idiom of Islam. I offer a third way of thinking about Islamic activism: as a form of a-liberal radicalism that readers might find inspiring, not repelling or contemptible. This is not a new idea. Talal Asad has explored the gap between the Enlightenment and the Islamic movement, which he thinks is a decidedly a-liberal, radical current. For the Enlightenment, the prime political fact was state absolutism, where individuals have the right to criticize but the duty to obey. For Islamic activists, on the contrary, the prime political fact is the community of believers, who have the duty to participate in political action, the duty to criticize an unjust ruler, the duty to resist an unjust state. Talal Asad based this analysis on the reading of one Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant, and of one Saudi Islamic activist, Sa’id bin Zu’ayr. In Graveyard of Clerics, I am bringing the ethnography that was missing from his text.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PM: I am working on a project I have had in mind for some time: an environmental anthropology of the Arabian hinterland, from Upper Najd to the Yemeni lowlands. Expect volcanoes, leopards, pipelines, acacias, bustards, and flowers—lots of flowers.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1: “Graveyard of Clerics,” pp. 3-7)

I quit smoking thanks to Islamic activists.

I had been researching youth politics in Riyadh for about two years, chain-smoking between interviews but never during them, for Islamic activists—the bulk of my interlocutors—loathed tobacco.

Friends and interviewees were concerned about my habit and one of them recommended a religious charity that helped smokers. I drove there one day. Inside the building a volunteer greeted me with a grin. He looked like many religious activists in Saudi Arabia: with a beard, short white robes, a flowing headdress, and a boisterous sense of purpose. He took me to an office where he measured my lung capacity with a small device. Looking at the results, he praised the speed of my exhalation and said recovery would be easier than I thought.

He then led me to a large room where there was a tall transparent container, with a slot in the top, that looked vaguely like a ballot box. The container was filled with crumpled cigarette packs. A few others joined us there for an impromptu ceremony: the volunteer invited me to take out the pack that had been distorting the front pocket of my jeans, crush it, and throw it into the box, all of which I did, and they applauded. From there the man led me into a room of examination tables covered in clean sheets. The blinds were shut and the lights were dimmed; each table had a pillow and a pair of electrodes. I lay down and he fixed the electrodes to the small flaps in front of my ear openings. He told me to relax and turned on a rheostat.

A mild electric current passed through my skull between my ears. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing. The buzz receded into the background; I dozed off to the swish of cars on the avenue outside. After about twenty minutes, the man came back, removed the electrodes, and told me to come back the next day.

As I left the building I inhaled the dusty air, filled with car exhaust and cooking scents. A man was walking down the street, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He walked past and I caught a full whiff of tobacco smoke.

I thought I would be attracted to the smell, but what I perceived was an odor I had not sensed in fourteen years: it was acrid and unpleasant, not the seductive aroma I had grown to love. Cigarette smoke was now as alien to me as it had been before I started smoking. The electrodes had acted on my senses like a time machine.

The treatment was free of charge and lasted for a week, during which I did not touch tobacco. But after the electric treatments stopped, I started smoking again. I cursed the false hope the charity had given me, then forgot about it. My life as a researcher went on as before until one day, a few months later, I had to put out my morning cigarette after a couple of drags. This was very unusual. The day’s first cigarette was often the best, but that one I found repulsive. I remembered the Islamic charity’s electrodes and ran to the nearest pharmacy. I bought nicotine patches, vitamins, and magnesium—and I braced myself.

I told this story a few years later to a Saudi student in the United States, a social scientist who was closely watching the political scene in his country. He told me he regretted that Islamic activists had vanished from public spaces in recent years: they were now in prison, in hiding, or dead.

“Without them, we are left alone to face the Saudi state,” he said. “They used to organize society in an autonomous manner. They created all kinds of institutions that were outside of the state’s purview. Your addiction clinic is a good example of this.”

That this chain smoker and amateur of strong cocktails missed Islamic activists was a testimony to their wide appeal. Smoking was so prevalent in the country that addiction clinics sprouted up in several cities. Like other behaviors that activists had constructed as sins, smoking was an opportunity for dedicated individuals to organize and collectively demonstrate their social utility. The addiction clinic was not only a political tool, however, but also a site of transformation. There everyday smokers could reform themselves by submitting to the higher orders of meditation and electricity.

Addiction clinics were part of a nationwide network of charities, youth movements, women’s groups, and activist organizations that emerged in the 1970s and were called, as a whole, the Islamic Awakening or sometimes, simply, the Awakening. Awakening activists critiqued and protested the top-down modernization of the country by princes and experts, the Saudi-U.S. military alliance, Western arms sales to the country, and the repression of political and religious activism. They organized youth movements, provided a purpose to generations of Saudis, and helped members of the middle and the lower middle class gain in confidence and self-respect. And despite—or because of—their popularity, they were repressed and criminalized.

The eventual political crackdown was the outcome of long-term international cooperation. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Al Saʿud created the Saudi state in the first decades of the twentieth century. To fund his political projects, he sought support from the Ottoman Empire, then the British Empire, and eventually the United States. The Ottomans appointed ʿAbd al-ʿAziz’s father kaymakam, local imperial administrator. The British made Central Arabia into a protectorate during World War I and helped ʿAbd al-ʿAziz conquer the vast territories that extend from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. In the 1930s, U.S. oil companies carved an informal empire out of the Saudi oil province, a territory east of Riyadh that was the size of Ukraine. Their corporate influence was soon formalized in a U.S. military protectorate over Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Americans introduced wage labor, military air bases, economic planning, racial segregation, and suburban developments to Saudi Arabia. They powered the repressive apparatus of a state that grew more authoritarian as more Western experts joined it. Western modernity produced pipelines, asphalt roads, single-family houses—and torture chambers. In oil-fueled, Western-powered Saudi Arabia, dissidents became traitors, and traitors could be tortured and disposed of.

ʿAbd al-ʿAziz first cracked down on those who resisted his conquests. The fledging state banned political parties in 1932 as a way to help British and Saudi forces fight the Free Hijazi Party, a movement that resisted ʿAbd al-ʿAziz’s annexation of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The next targets of police and military repression were the workers’ movements that fought the U.S. oil company’s racist, exploitative practices. The state banned unions and strikes and systematically suppressed public dissent. U.S., British, and French experts trained Saudi officers. U.S., British, and French weapons manufacturers armed them. The Pax Americana was also a Pax Britannica and a Pax Gallica.

In 1976, the French intelligence head Alexandre de Marenches godfathered the Safari Club, an international coalition whose mission was to hunt down subversives in the Middle East and Africa. The Safari Club was made up of Egypt, France, Iran, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. It soon organized counterinsurgency operations in Congo and Somalia and supported an Islamic insurgency against the new communist government of Afghanistan. When an armed movement occupied Mecca’s Great Mosque in 1979 and lambasted the Saudi monarchy, the Saudi head of intelligence reached out to his French partners, and President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing sent in an elite unit. Saudi and French forces killed between four and five thousand people during the siege of the mosque. The following year, a state-owned French development corporation started building a ten-thousand-unit suburb near Mecca. Political repression and real estate development often went hand in hand.

The Saudi War on Terror has continued the Safari Club’s counterinsurgency operations in the twenty-first century. In 2011 there were between twelve and thirty thousand political prisoners and prisoners of opinion in the country, some of whom had been personally processed by FBI officers. Regulations enacted in 2013 and 2014 expanded the definition of terrorism to include the mildest forms of public speech. “Doubting the principles of Islam” became terrorism, as did “supporting or belonging to […] organizations, groups, movements, gatherings, or political parties.” Participating in a sit-in or a demonstration was terrorism. Attending conferences that “sow discord in society” was terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization. Atheists were terrorists, too.

Meanwhile, people kept disappearing into the black hole of the Saudi security system. When Salman bin ʿAbd al-ʿAziz, an aged son of the founding father, came to power in 2015, he found a perfectly greased machine. Salman’s son, Muhammad bin Salman, lost little time before beginning to push its most gruesome buttons; brasher than his forebears, he did not bother to hide his actions. Saudi state brutality, which had been known to Saudis for decades, became international news.