On Graveyard of Clerics

A Q&A with Pascal Menoret

Based on four years of living and conducting fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, Graveyard of Clerics takes up two global phenomena intimately linked in Saudi Arabia: urban sprawl and religious activism. Saudi suburbia emerged after World War II as citizens fled crowded inner cities. Developed to encourage a society of docile, isolated citizens, suburbs instead opened new spaces for political action. Religious activists, in particular, turned homes, schools, mosques, and summer camps into resources for mobilization. With the support of suburban grassroots networks, activists won local elections and found opportunities to protest government actions—until they faced a new wave of repression under the current Saudi leadership. With this book, Menoret tells the stories of the people actively countering the Saudi state and highlights how people can organize and protest even amid increasingly intense police repression. On the occasion of the book's publication, we asked Menoret three questions about religious activism in Saudi Arabia and the broader implications of his book.

What are the ways we typically understand religious activism in Saudi Arabia? What intervention(s) in that narrative are you making with this book?

The scholarship on political activism in the Middle East has long been dominated by transitologist fads. Scholars often try to measure how close to liberal ideals (e.g., democracy, rule of law, transparency) various political forces are. In Graveyard of Clerics, I leave this debate to others and take a step back. Instead of evaluating the liberalism of Islamic activists, I describe what I experienced during four years of field research in Saudi Arabia. I make sense of the world of Islamic activists. I analyze how they understand space, how they move in space, and how they turn space into a resource for mobilization. Looking at where politics happens, I am intrigued in particular by the concurrence between suburbanization and religious activism. Why do suburbs—these very material formations—accommodate religious politics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere? Why does low population density often resonate with otherworldly references? Of course, I am not saying that there is a spatial determinism—that suburbanization causes Islamic activism or Christian fundamentalism. But I am curious to understand how suburbs, which were imagined as spaces of quiet consumption and materialistic enjoyment, became re-politicized by various groups, including Islamic movements.

Who are the activists? Are there certain demographic descriptors (young, old, male, female, etc.) that characterize some or all of them?

In my experience, there is no descriptor that would allow observers to predict what demographic is more susceptible to turn to Islamic activism than others. There are women Islamic activists, some of whom are beautifully analyzed by Amélie Le Renard in her 2014 book A Society of Young Women. And there are the men I analyze in my book, which looks at the making of masculinity in the suburban environment of Riyadh. Activists are old and young, rich and poor, sedentary and Bedouin, Saudi and immigrant, with and without a citizenship. This is due to the fact that Islamic activists have used universalist state institutions—schools and mosques primarily—to mobilize around goals that were embedded in everyday life. Islamic activism demanded that individuals be more aware of their environment. There is an Islamic way to be woke, to see through state propaganda, and to be sensitive to injustice at home and abroad. Islamic activism was a form of empowerment, a way to acquire skills and habits that public institutions were not really transmitting. It is by being mosque activists that generations of young Saudis trained themselves in debating, organizing, and public speaking, and created semi-autonomous zones within Saudi society—zones where they did not have to pay allegiance to national laws and regulations and tried to create counter-societies.

What is an example of the consequences the world faces as Saudi elites shut down grassroots political movements?

Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula are not a backwater or a periphery. They are, as Laleh Khalili shows in her magisterial new book, Sinews of War and Trade, a nexus of the capitalist world order. The Arabian Peninsula is one of the main crossroads where oilmen, investors, experts, and engineers created the type of globalization that we experienced in the past forty-odd years. This means that Saudi repression is not a localized phenomenon, steeped in cultural habits or religious doctrines. It is a modern phenomenon that has grown less with the contemporary Saudi state than against its national sovereignty. Saudi repression has constantly sided with U.S. oil companies against Saudi national interests, with Western interests against Saudi labor, with the U.S.-led War on Terror against Saudi activists. By cracking down on unionization efforts and leftist or Islamic opposition groups, Saudi security forces facilitated a faster movement of goods from west to east and from east to west, powered by cheap, fast traveling oil. This global acceleration in turn increased inequalities and restricted popular power elsewhere. An attack against Islamic activists is an attack against all types of activists. This is in particular why I have chosen to tell Saudi activists’ stories in their own terms, to quote them at length, to show them in their everydayness. As far away politically or geographically as they might be, their political work in dire conditions is a feat that deserves to be known and to be respected.

Pascal Menoret is the Renée and Lester Crown Professor of Modern Middle East Studies at the Crown Center. He was recently promoted to associate professor with tenure in the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis.