Gulf Pulse

Saudis struggle to reconcile IS fight, Wahhabism

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Article Summary
While it might not be what the West wants to hear, Wahhabism and Salafism offer young Saudis clear boundaries and a blueprint for changing the self and the world through action.

It has been alleged by Zacarias Moussaoui that al-Qaeda’s database of donors contains the names of prominent Saudi princes. Moussaoui is currently serving life in prison in the United States as the purported 20th hijacker in the 9/11 plot to destroy the World Trade Center towers in New York. Moussaoui singled out Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of intelligence who also served as ambassador in Washington for a short time after 9/11; Prince Bandar bin Sultan, national security adviser and ambassador in Washington during 9/11; and Walid bin Talal, who heads a global business and media empire. Moussaoui’s testimony turned even more sensational when he claimed that he had had a meeting with a Saudi Embassy official to discuss blowing up Air Force One. Proving or disproving such claims is currently beyond any outside observer’s capabilities given the absence of evidence, and if such evidence exists, it is not being made public knowledge. There is also the question of Moussaoui’s mental health.

The published 9/11 Commission Report (2004) omitted several pages related to Saudi Arabia, thus leading to a plethora of speculation and conspiracy theories. It is unclear whether the omission was a deliberate move to protect the identities of people in Saudi Arabia, the United States or both, or to salvage the US-Saudi alliance during its worst crisis since its inception after World War II. Without transparency, the Saudis’ association with 9/11 will continue to be a subject of debate and controversy for three primary reasons.

First, the Saudi role is well documented in US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy in the 1980s to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and end the Cold War. Part of this strategy was to unleash Islamic fundamentalism, in particular its jihadist aspirations, against those declared an enemy of the Muslims, in this example, the godless communists. This coincided with the Saudis’ pan-Islamic agenda, developed by King Faisal in the 1960s, to counter threats from Arab leftists and nationalists and gain legitimacy among local Muslim constituencies, especially after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which surprised Islamists across the Muslim world.

The Saudis were seriously worried about the Iranians, because the Shiite minority had succeeded in establishing an Islamic dream state, whereas they had not. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia feared losing popularity among Muslims around the world, who were newly enchanted by the defiant Iranian mullahs and chants of “Death to the Great Satan,” at the time the “American imperialists.” As a result, Saudi backing of the Afghan jihad was an opportunity to remind multiple audiences of its sincere commitment to Islamic causes around the globe.

Instrumentalizing Islam, and especially sponsoring and propagating radical interpretations of its sacred texts, in an international conflict with wealthy powers, like the United States, proved to be disastrous. Both the United States and its Saudi partner have paid a high price for the unintended consequences of this misguided foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks were only one instance of its long-term effects, the deadly wave of terrorism that swept Saudi Arabia between 2003-2007 being another.

Until more files are opened, no one will know whether Osama bin Laden sought to wreak havoc on the US-Saudi relationship by hitting the United States after his Saudi sponsors declared him persona non grata in the early 1990s or whether Saudi princes were actually involved in attacking their most important protector. One should not forget that official Saudi Arabia is not simply a monarchy, but a fiefdom of multiple wealthy and powerful state actors whose interests do not always coincide. A prince pursuing his own personal interests might collide with the declared policy of the state or a branch of the state led by a rival princely faction.

The second reason for the continuous suspicion of Saudi Arabia among observers relates to its Wahhabi Islamic ideology. When extremists vow to kill infidels and avenge injustices inflicted on the Muslim “umma” (community) around the globe, they justify their acts through religious interpretations at the heart of the Wahhabi tradition, which is known for its call to dissociate Muslims from infidels, maintain clear boundaries of piety and propriety and lead a life uncontaminated by the trappings of Western values and norms. This religious interpretation is not an invention of the Saudis, but is a long tradition among a small, insignificant subgroup of the Sunni Muslim world known as Salafiyya (or Salafis).

Before Saudi petrodollars, this narrow interpretation of Islam had little appeal to most Muslims. It was truly marginal. Saudi oil wealth and the quest for pan-Islamic hegemony, however, brought it from the margin to the center. Beginning in the 1970s, Wahhabism spread across the globe thanks to funds, institutions and new media sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Complicating matters was the existence of not one Wahhabism, but several trends within it, all of them with extremely conservative outlooks, especially in regard to gender issues, other Muslim sects and relations with non-Muslims.

Furthermore, Saudi Wahhabis were divided inside Saudi Arabia itself. There were those who promoted acquiescence, that is, total obedience to the ruler unless he blasphemed. Other more vigorous Wahhabis rejected this position, calling on Muslims to overthrow debauched rulers by resorting to violence. In the past, the latter Wahhabi offshoots inspired al-Qaeda and its like, and today they are appealing to the Islamic State (IS). As Wahhabis are in general concerned with the individual and the community, the two positions they take are inevitably political. Thus, there is no space for the quieter Wahhabi Salafis inside Saudi Arabia to be designated apolitical. They are political when they shun politics and outlaw dissent in attempts to change political realities.

Assisted by oil wealth, the two branches of Wahhabism traveled worldwide along the transnational and global highways, beyond their limited and historically insignificant local Arabian niche. Wahhabism is today a fragmented religious tradition, opposed by many for its social conservatism and for unleashing a global terrorism crisis, but it continues to appeal to Muslims searching for a well-defined identity.

The attraction is that Wahhabism and its larger Salafi tradition are in a way surprisingly modern. They offer young urbanites clear boundaries, classifications and, most important, a blueprint for changing the self and the world through action. One cannot get more modern than that. Wahhabi insistence on fixing meaning and resorting to authentic texts offers an antidote to diluted values, hybridity and all the postmodern pastiches characteristic of contemporary life. The majority of Salafi Muslims seek comfort in personal struggles, a form of jihad, to live up to Wahhabi prescriptions amid the prohibited temptations of today’s world. It is only a small minority that is attracted to the branch of Wahhabism that advocates violent struggle, also a kind of jihad, to create a new Muslim first and then a state in which to live according to the strictest interpretations of Islam. Herein lies the appeal of IS and nostalgia for the caliphate and application of Sharia.

In Saudi Arabia, those disappointed by the state, as the society sinks deeper into the material trappings of modernity, from shopping centers to electronic applications, are also divided into two camps. There are those who seek to change people’s behavior peacefully, by preaching and outlawing modern temptations. Among them would be the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, who launches verbal wars on Twitter and Facebook against corrupting influences as incubators of dissident against God, king and nation. On the other side are those who seek to overthrow the regime that opened the country’s borders not only to the material and non-material trappings of modernity, but also to the infidels who invented them.

The debate about Saudi Arabia’s real or alleged association with 9/11 reflects the ongoing contradiction in the country’s image as both a victim and an incubator of the Wahhabi religious tradition in its two varieties. Immediately after 9/11, the Saudi leadership, including Prince Nayef, minister of interior at the time, denied that Wahhabi interpretations had been a source of inspiration for the perpetrators. Instead, they blamed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles in Saudi Arabia for radicalizing the nation’s youth. When terrorists struck Saudi Arabia itself, however, the state of denial gave way to soul-searching that eventually led to acknowledging the contribution of the Wahhabi tradition, especially among homegrown jihadists.

Saudi Arabia joined the war on terror, increased control over preachers, shuttered charities accused of funding terrorism and pledged to change its religious education curriculum. Currently, after four years of sponsoring various rebel groups in Syria, Saudi Arabia joined the international alliance against IS and contributed to the bombing campaign against its bases in Syria and Iraq. Given the similarities between the Saudi and IS “justice” systems — for example, the lashing, flogging and beheadings — it seems odd that a supposed caliphate pledging to apply Sharia in ways similar to its application in Saudi Arabia should be an enemy of the Saudis. These kinds of contradictions leave one puzzled by a situation in which the Saudi king and the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are rivals. Similarity can truly breed contempt.

Acts of violence need justifying in the form of discourses that grant them legitimacy, and Wahhabism appears to be one of those discourses. It is potent because a sacred umbrella of religious texts and interpretations provoke emotional dispositions and provide authenticity and legitimacy beyond any secular source. In the context of the Arab world today, dying for faith seems more popular than dying for country and nation.

To fight the menace, however, it is not enough to simply declare war on Wahhabism or any other religious or secular source of inspiration for violence. One must know the material conditions that have compelled and continue to lead people to join jihadist brigades, and why these conditions make the old fragmented Wahhabi discourse resonate among Muslims, albeit a minority of the youth among them.

We will continue to listen to the fantasies of Moussaoui and perhaps others to come until the intrigues of Arab dictators (including the Saudis among them) and their manipulation of religion and repression, the role of powerful international patrons (like the United States) and their intelligence services and the fate of marginalized Muslims in the suburbs of world and Arab capitals are exposed. For the time being, it seems that contrary to the most valued principle of justice, the presumption of innocence is suspended while awaiting transparent reports on the involvement of more actors in the 9/11 saga and the ongoing war in Syria. For the country and the victims of 9/11, Saudi Arabia will not remain innocent until proven guilty.

Found in: wahhabism, united states, terrorism, sharia, september 11, saudi arabia, salafism, islamic state

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed is a visiting professor at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore as well as a columnist for Al-Monitor's Gulf Pulse. She has written extensively about the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalization, religious transnationalism and gender. On Twitter: @MadawiDr

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