Saudi Wahhabi dilemma in spotlight after Paris attack
Reuters, 17 November 2015
Its harsh religious tradition is seen by many outsiders — and some Saudi liberals — as a root cause of the global jihadist threat.
Saudi Arabia’s harsh religious tradition is seen by many outsiders — and some Saudi liberals — as a root cause of the international jihadist threat that has inflamed the Middle East for years and struck in Paris last week.
However, while Riyadh has cracked down hard on jihadists at home, jailing thousands, stopping hundreds from travelling to fight abroad and cutting militant finance streams, its approach to religion has raised a dilemma. It assails the ideology of militants, who proclaim jihad against those they regard as heretics or infidels, while allying with a clerical establishment that preaches intolerance, although not violence, against exactly those same groups.
Shiism as heretical
Wahhabism, the kingdom’s official ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim school, regards Shiism as heretical, lauds the concept of jihad and urges hatred of infidels. Its clerics run the Saudi justice system and have funds to spread their influence abroad.
“Muslims should be fair to non-Muslims. They can do business with them and should not attack them. But that does not mean they should not hate them and avoid them,” a senior Saudi cleric said in a background discussion with Reuters last year.
For the government, focusing on that distinction, between accepting hatred and inciting violence, has let it retain the support of Wahhabi clergy and ultra-conservative Saudis while also carrying out a massive security operation against militants.
Extreme interpretation of Salafi branch
Modern jihadist organisations, including the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda, follow an extreme interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, of which Wahhabism was the original strain, and whose clergy still enjoy great influence in wider Salafist circles.
Friday’s carnage in Paris at the hands of an IS cell follows a series of bombings and shootings by the same group’s followers in Saudi Arabia over the past year that have killed dozens, mostly from the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
Combating Islamist radicalism
The government defends its record on combating Islamist radicalism, pointing to its detention of thousands of suspected militants, its intelligence sharing with allies and its barring of clergy who praised militant attacks.
Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki in an interview this summer rejected the idea that Wahhabism itself was a problem, comparing the 2,144 Saudis who had gone to Syria with the estimated 5,000 European Muslims who had done so. He said the clerics and firebrands now exhorting Muslims — including Saudis — to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, or to launch attacks elsewhere, were themselves living in territory controlled by the IS rather than in the kingdom itself.
The Grand Mufti and the council of senior scholars — the top Wahhabi cleric and institution — denounced the Paris attacks and have for years decried militants as deviants and heretics.
But Saudi clerics openly defame Shiites as “rejectionists,” a term in common currency among Sunni militants in the sectarian bloodbath afflicting many Middle-East nations, and often refuse to accept that Shiites are Muslim.
Their teaching on jihad — that it is a blessed activity in defence of Islam against infidels and heretics, and will win rewards in heaven — differs from that of militant groups only in requiring the approval of the king and Saudi official clergy.
To outsiders and to liberal Saudi critics of the ruling Al Saud, such intellectual gymnastics, reinforced in frequent clerical messages and a centrepiece of the kingdom’s militant rehabilitation programme, sometimes look like hair-splitting. However, they fall squarely in the context of Saudi Arabia’s idiosyncratic internal politics, in which the unelected dynasty depends on the Wahhabi clergy to support its legitimacy and often voices fears of a militant uprising against its rule.
Conservatives, biggest threat
Certainly, the biggest historical threats to stability in the world’s top oil exporter and the birthplace of Islam have come from conservatives reacting against liberalisation.
The Ikhwan tribal army of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud rebelled against him over his treaties with non-Muslims. King Faisal was assassinated in 1975 in revenge for the 1966 shooting of a prince during riots against the introduction of television.
In 1979, a group of militant Islamists inspired by anger at Westernisation overran Mecca’s Grand Mosque in a bloody siege. Widespread Islamist protests seethed in the 1990s and in the last decade, al-Qaeda staged deadly attacks. Those shootings and bombings, which killed hundreds, helped prompt the Al Saud to address open militancy among the clergy and to introduce liberalising reforms aimed at encouraging tolerance and getting more young Saudis into jobs.
They included a scholarship programme that sent hundreds of thousands of Saudis of both sexes abroad to study, a big drive to get more women into jobs, glacial reforms to the justice and education sectors and the banning of hundreds of preachers.
These reforms led to a crescendo of Wahhabi outrage against their progenitor — the late King Abdullah. While the new King Salman gets on better with the clergy, nine months after he took power he has made no big moves to roll back social change.
The dynasty’s critics counter that the state-financed clergy are more pliant to the ruling family’s wishes than they appear and that the Al Saud holds up the threat of militancy to avoid making reforms that could ultimately endanger its own power.
They add that previous concessions made against fears of a conservative backlash gave Wahhabi clerics influence that simply reinforced their intolerant message.
One problem the Al Saud have in attempts to soften Wahhabism is that the school was founded expressly to end what it saw as heretical and wrong beliefs. Another is the terms of an 18th century pact between princes and clerics dividing authority between the political and religious spheres.
To challenge either of those two principles would be to strike at fundamental beliefs and a social contract that lie at the heart of Saudi society.
Yet some changes have been made. After Ibn Saud defeated the Ikhwan, he promoted clerics who endorsed a more inclusive version of Wahhabism that recognised more liberal Sunnis as being Muslim and accepted the idea of relations with infidels. Over the decades, the positions of official clergy have grudgingly softened further still, and the Wahhabi tent is now broad enough to include firebrands as well as clerics who are comfortable engaging with the West and modern ideas.
Dilution of influence
Meanwhile, although Saudi Arabia finances preachers, mosques and madrassas around the world, and although Salafism has become common among Muslims globally, Saudi Arabia’s own influence in the movement has become diluted.
Its Umm al-Qura seminary in Medina remains one of the principle centres of Salafist learning for international students, but its graduates have no greater clout than those of institutions in other countries.
“The Salafi scene has become so fragmented and diverse across the world that the Saudis don’t control it any more. When people go to study Salafism, they don’t go there, and what they study is a Salafism over which the Saudis have no control,” said Stephane Lacroix, author of books on Salafism and Saudi Islam.
Less influence among militants
Among militants, Saudi religious influence is even less pronounced. Jihadists often turn to texts written by long-dead Wahhabi scholars and they often adopt a Saudi style of oratory in their religious speeches, but they mock the kingdom’s modern clergy as puppets of a corrupt, pro-Western regime.
Radical face of Saudi Wahhabism
S. Irfan Habib
The Hindu, 19 November, 2015
The agenda of the Islamic State today is merely an extension of the devious plan laid down by Abdul Wahhab almost two hundred years ago
It is ironical indeed that the Turkish regime today is implicated in propping up a terrorist group called the Islamic State (IS), which has vowed to spread Wahhabi Islam all over the world. The present Wahhabism, legitimated and empowered by the Saudi regime, has violent, almost criminal, origins in the 19th century. If we care to look into its beginnings, we won’t be surprised at its utter contempt for human life and everything else which doesn’t conform to its own narrow/sectarian agenda. Let me explain the irony first.
It was the Ottoman regime which bore the brunt of Wahhabi Islam soon after it became a force in the Central Arab region. The toxic combine of 18th century Islamic scholar Abdul Wahhab and the first monarch of Saudi Arabia Ibn Saud posed a challenge to the Ottoman rule. They also questioned the prevalent Islamic beliefs and practices. The Turks not only defended their power but also assiduously fought for the mystic Islam they had professed and supported all these years. The Ottomans fought and exiled the Wahhabis to the Arab deserts where they remained for almost a century. This Wahhabi bigotry was condemned by the Turks as criminal and unIslamic. The sad irony is that the current Turkish regime has joined the Wahhabi bandwagon, forgetting all about the Bektashis, Qadiris and other dervishes they had cherished all these centuries. The IS agenda today is merely an extension of the devious plan laid down by Abdul Wahhab almost 200 years ago. Let us look at this so-called puritan Islam proposed by the Wahhabis, its violent ‘othering’ of Muslims they disliked and the parallels with the present day IS terrorists.
Hate filled agenda
Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, and his radical, exclusionist puritanism became deadlier when Ibn Saud decided to add its religious fervour to his banditry. (The latter was then no more than a minor leader amongst many of continually fighting and raiding Bedouin tribes in the desperately poor deserts of the Nejd.) Thus Abdul Wahhab, in collaboration with Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, laid down its sectarian and hate-filled agenda. He denounced his opponents and all Muslims unwilling to accept his views as idolaters and apostates, and abused the prophets, scholars, saints and other pious figures of the past. All those who did not adhere to his proposed version of Islam were to be killed; their wives and daughters violated. Shias, Sufis, and other Muslims whom he judged unorthodox were to be exterminated, and all other faiths to be humiliated or destroyed. With this awful doctrine, the foundation was laid for Islamic fundamentalism, leading ultimately to terrorism, vitiating the lives of not only Muslims but everyone else in the world.
Most of the so-called Islamic terrorist groups today are inspired by this devious political ideology. Saudi money and power has succeeded in mainstreaming this hate-filled conning of Islam as the true, puritan Islam, where any deviation is dubbed as unIslamic. Unfortunately, most Western writers on Islam took Wahhabi claims to represent reform against the alleged decadence of traditional Islam at face value. American journalist Stephen Schwartz says that the Wahhabi rejection of ostentatious spirituality is much the same as the Protestants detesting the veneration of saints in the Roman Church. Western observers have seen the movement as analogous with Christian Reformation. Sadly, they have failed to make a distinction between reform and bigotry.
IS and other terrorist groups today have taken the original Wahhabi perversion to even greater heights where they don’t even refer to their roots. The Saudi regime itself feels threatened by the monster their ideology helped create. They have publicly distanced themselves from IS terrorism and even used the chief cleric of Mecca to declare IS terrorism a heinous crime under sharia law. This is one consistent duplicity which the Saudis have pursued whenever they found themselves stuck in a tight spot.
However, the stark parallels between IS and its ilk and the Saudi-Wahhabi travesty are telling. If IS is detonating shrines, it is following the precedent set in the 1920s by the House of Saud with the Wahhabi-inspired demolition of 1,400-year-old tombs in the Jannat ul Baqi cemetery in Medina. Again, the hatred for the Shia Muslims is one of the core beliefs of the Wahhabis. The earliest destructions and killings they carried out were in Karbala in the early 19th century, which was followed by the looting and wrecking of the tomb of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet. Whatever be the face, bile against the Shias has remained a constant throughout Wahhabi-Saudi history, which is being carried forward by its latest flag bearers, the IS and Al Qaeda.
Why did hydra-headed Wahhabism become so menacingly active during the past few decades? One factor may be the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s, which was perceived as a threat by Wahhabism that had begun to look dated by then. It, therefore, had to reinvent itself to remain relevant. This reinvention had deadly manifestations such as the Boko Haram, the Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and now the IS, and many others all over the world. Even Shia Islam changed radically in the post Ayatollah Khomeini era; it is no more as relaxed as it used to be.
The Saudi and Qatari regimes seem to have realised that they have created a monster in ISIS, which is now a threat to their own peaceful existence. Though IS remains deeply Wahhabist, it is ultra radical and “could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahhabism.” Today, a collective military action seems to be the only way to check the IS menace, but a lasting peace in the Islamic world is possible only if a battle is waged within Islam to change the mindset. Besides we need to look beyond the usual Islamophobic and Islamophilic perspectives.