Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ) has a noble goal. In their overarching desire to reverse the harm that has been done to the climate since the start of the Industrial Revolution, activists have called on the university to divest from fossil fuel companies. While other universities, most notably Stanford and the University of California system, have withdrawn their investments from fossil fuels, Interim President Lisa Lynch said that this decision is “important to leave to the next president,” according to a Nov. 6 article in The Brandeis Hoot. BCJ has called on the university to divest from fossil fuels for the past three years, but has not gained much traction. Perhaps a shift in focus is needed to get the attention of the Board of Trustees. Instead of looking through the lens of halting the extraction of fossil fuels, it can be more successful to find a way to cut off support for regions profiting from fossil fuel sales.
One of the better arguments BCJ uses is that the university did divest from South Africa in the 1980s as a response to Apartheid, and the international movement helped bring an end to the racist policies. The focus of the divestment movement, then, should shift away from corporations exploiting natural resources and causing harm to the environment. There are nations that directly profit from selling their fossil fuels, and one particular nation fosters hate and oppression.
Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been generally positive over the previous two presidential terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with the trade of oil being the greatest facilitator. Despite the diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia still has its flaws. As of 2006, only 5 percent of the workforce in the country is female. While calls for reform have increased in the past few years, the Saudi government has resisted.
In light of the terrorist attacks in Paris last month and the overwhelming destruction caused in Syria and Iraq over the past few years, Daesh (commonly known as ISIS in the U.S.) needs to be stopped. While straight military action from the West will most likely cause more harm than good, whatever groups or institutions are funding and supporting Daesh can be taken down through other channels. While Daesh sustains itself financially through its terror program, according to a policy analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published in June 2014, the ideology is state-sponsored.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is partially based on an agreement between the House of Saud—the historic ruling family—and a group of Wahhabist Muslims, granting the Saud family power in exchange for support of the very conservative sect of Islam.
This agreement took place in 1744 and is still honored by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. “Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities teach this [Salafism] brand of Islam. The University of Medina recruits students from around the world, trains them in the bigotry of Salafism and sends them to Muslim communities,” according to a 2014 op-ed in The New York Times by Ed Husain. Important to note is that Salafism is seen as the general sect of conservative Islam, whereas Wahhabism is regional to Saudi Arabia. While the specific differences between the two sects are nuanced and still debated by scholars, both are extremely oppressive.
Just as divestment from South Africa in the 1980s helped to bring about the end of Apartheid, divesting from Saudi Arabia today will help bring human rights reform and stop the spread of Wahhabism and Salafism within Islam. The university should complete a thorough inspection of their investment portfolio and determine if any of their assets are contributing to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While divesting from corporations doing business with Saudi Arabia because of their support of oppression and extremism is noble and practical enough, an immediate effect would be the divestment from fossil fuel companies, something BCJ would certainly endorse. A majority of Saudi Arabia’s economy is based on the oil trade, and divesting would put a damper on the burning of fossil fuels.
Perhaps it’s merely semantics—the difference between divesting from fossil fuel corporations and divesting from Saudi Arabia—but given that the Board of Trustees balks at the idea of divesting, a change in argument is necessary. And maybe there would still be the need to divest from all fossil fuel companies in addition to those dealing solely in Saudi Arabia. But given the university’s ideals of promoting justice, distancing itself from any involvement in Saudi Arabia would reach this goal. The precedent has already been set with the divestment from South Africa campaign.
Brandeis can be at the front of a new movement and be the instigators for worldwide change and peace by looking at its investment portfolio, and taking all funds out of Saudi Arabia and stop supporting the House of Saud’s oppressive rule. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry would take a huge hit. While the support of Daesh, discrimination against women and selling of fossil fuels will not halt overnight if Brandeis takes out investments in Saudi Arabia—over 150 institutions divested from South Africa by 1988 before Apartheid was lifted—that can’t be a discouragement. In order to support social justice across all sections of economics, environmentalism and human rights, Saudi Arabia cannot be supported by this university, nor by any other reputable organization in the United States.