God certainly has a great sense of irony. In the same week that Saudi Arabia, an Islamic theocracy, took a small step out of the 18th Century by
easing its ban on female driving, America took a step back into that century by handing a win in the Alabama U.S. Senate Republican primary to Roy Moore, a vehement proponent of a Christian theocracy on U.S. soil.
Sadly, it seems, faith in American-style liberalism is dimming in America just as it is penetrating the remaining bastions of illiberalism in the world.
Moore calls Islam a "fake religion" while spreading the fake news that unnamed Christian communities in Illinois and Indiana are being forced to live under Islamic law or sharia. But why he would find sharia all that troubling is unclear given that his Christianity is its spiritual twin.
He has twice been defrocked as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, first in 2004 for insisting on displaying a massive plaque of the 10 Commandments in his court in defiance of the First Amendment's establishment clause, and then in 2016 for refusing to hand marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Far from showing regret, he regards these as justified acts of civil disobedience because, like Islamic fundamentalists, he believes that God's law supersedes man's law. Indeed, he considers God to be "the only source of our law, liberty and government" and made the restoration of Christian "virtue and morality" the cornerstone of his campaign. Nor is there much daylight between his idea of Christian virtue and the Islamic strictures that he demonizes.
Moore would ban not just reproductive choice for women but also homosexuality which he has condemned as "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God." In fact, he has repeatedly refused to rule out the death penalty against gays. He considers 9-11 God's retribution against America for "legitimizing sodomy." This means that as far as he is concerned, the 9-11 Islamist were really emissaries of God. Yet he penned purple prose opposing Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever to be elected to the House in 2006, from taking his oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible because, you know, America wasn't settled by folks who brought "a Koran on the pilgrim ship, Mayflower."
Most chilling, however, is that he is the author of the misnamed 2005 Constitution Restoration Act that would give Congress the power to remove any judge who refuses to recognize God as the source of America's law. The bill also seeks to limit the power of the Supreme Court to overrule or punish any state official or judge acting in the name of God's law and, instead, would impeach the judges who take on such cases. Think of it as the Christian version of Taliban rule with slightly more checks-and-balances and fewer beards.
Many explanations have been proffered for Moore's victory including the failure of Congressional Republicans to deliver on their promise to repeal-and-replace Obamacare, the close ties of Moore's primary opponent, Luther Strange with Alabama's disgraced, scandal-plagued governor, and the conservative base's general disgust with the Republican establishment that backed Strange.
There is some truth to all of them. But the far more disturbing reality is that the hard-core conservative base has turned inward, seeking "redemption" by returning to a purer past. It has become deeply hostile to the true source of American greatness, its receptiveness to outside influences, whether in the form of ideas, people or products. It has become the enemy of what the British philosopher Karl Popper famously called the "open society" that sees alien influences not as a threat but as a source of progress allowing it to constantly reinvent and improve itself.
Indeed, nearly all of Moore's conservative backers—whether ethno-nationalists Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka or nativist rabble rouser Ann Coulter or Christian reconstructionist Mike Huckabee—want to create a Fortress America and cut off the outside world.
But this is exactly the kind of medieval social vision that Saudi Arabia, thanks to influence of hardline Wahhabi clerics not dissimilar to Moore, embraced three decades ago. The lifting of the driving ban marks an effort to overturn this vision. It is not an isolated step either, but part of a sweeping reform agenda called Vision 2030 that the country's 31-year-old Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman—affectionately called MBS—has announced to extricate Saudi Arabia's economy and society from the religious chokehold in has been under and lead it into the 21st Century. Indeed, apart from letting women go behind the wheel, he also wants to build the country's entertainment industry beyond restaurants and shopping malls, doubling the number of cultural events annually including standup comics, Japanese orchestra, theater and more. What's more, women will be allowed to not just perform but also watch along with men. Even more remarkably, he wants to build the nation's tourist industry, including resorts along the Red Coast meeting "international standards"—a euphemism for gender-mixed beaches where at least foreign women will be allowed to sport bikinis.
And as Trumpists shriek against globalism, MBS actually wants to open up the state-owned oil giant Aramco to global markets—which means that foreigners will be able to own its biggest asset, or at least a part of it.
Why is MBS, who is far from a flawless figure, liberalizing the Saudi society and economy? Because he knows first hand what closing the country has done to it—namely, create a moribund economy that is overly dependent on exploiting the country's fast-depleting oil reserves, a whole generation of enervated young men who have lost their will to work due to chronic unemployment, and legions of women who are increasingly getting educated but whose talents the country can't harness due to its backward religious notions. Indeed, just when Moore wants to ban gays and, reproductive choice for women and limit religious liberty (he believes America's guarantee of religious freedom is meant only for Christians), Saudi men and women are clamoring for more personal freedom for themselves.
None of this is to say that Saudi Arabia will anytime soon become a mecca of liberalism or America will return to the days of puritan New England. Moore may yet be defeated in November and, even if he is elected, America's institutions, after 250 years of liberalism, are way too strong to simply succumb to the reactionary forces he represents. Conversely, Saudi Arabia's ruling classes have been in the business of dictating the religious life of their citizenry for too long to simply give up overnight.
Still, it is unfortunate that just when Saudi Arabia is driving in America's direction, right-wing reactionaries like Moore are driving America in Saudi Arabia's.