PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


The Mideast Threat That's Hard to Define

Author: Youssef Michel Ibrahim
August 11, 2002
The Washington Post


There are people inside the American defense establishment -- the most powerful, technologically sophisticated military in the history of mankind -- who believe that the greatest threat they face today may come from followers of an early 18th century religious extremist who called for a renewal of Islamic spirit, moral cleansing and the stripping away of all innovations to Islam since the seventh century. Those disciples are known as Wahabis.

Their namesake would have vanished into obscurity but for an act of political savvy that assured his followers influence over what has become one of the world's wealthiest, most pivotal regions. In 1745, the religious leader Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahab forged an alliance with Mohammad Ibn Saud, the principal tribal leader of a large portion of the Arabian peninsula. Ibn Abdul Wahab wanted to propagate his brand of Islamic orthodoxy. Ibn Saud wanted to unite tribes and secure political command, becoming the founder of the Al Saud dynasty that still rules what is now known as Saudi Arabia. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, perpetrated by people who mostly came from Saudi Arabia, "Wahabism" has entered the vocabulary of American policy makers almost as synonymous with death, destruction and terror. Moreover, Wahabi teachings and influence in Riyadh have colored our image of Saudi Arabia, threatening to move it from the category of a friend helping to stabilize oil prices and the region to one of a foe alien to our values and bent on hurting us.

Less obvious, however, is that the Sept. 11 attacks also have strained ties between the "Wahabis" and Arab governments. The alliance between the House of Saud -- wealthy, cosmopolitan, and increasingly Western in tastes and habits -- and the proponents of an austere form of Islam based on a literal interpretation of the Koran is becoming harder to sustain. An increasing number of newspaper commentators, regional leaders and Saudi officials are daring to speak up against the backwards "Wahabi" vision of society. And Persian Gulf governments are taking a tougher line against extremists once thought to be useful, or at least relatively harmless. Instead of representing growing Wahabi power, the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath in Afghanistan may signal the peak of Wahabi influence, and a turning point in Arab attitudes toward such extremists.

These nuances are important for the United States as it wages its war against terror and tries to decide, to paraphrase the president, who is with us and who is against us. The Bush administration must better distinguish between Islam and the real enemy -- radical extremists within Islam. Otherwise we risk a collision with 1.2 billion Muslims around the word who do not appreciate being demonized -- as Saudi officials felt they were the other day by a report leaked to this newspaper -- just because they disagree with our policies in the Middle East or our plans to invade Iraq.

It is true that the links between Saudi rulers and Wahabi followers have been real and durable. The pact of mutual convenience made more than 250 years ago continues. The Saudi minister of religion is always a member of the Al Sheikh family, descendents of Ibn Abdul Wahab. Moreover links between Ibn Abdul Wahab and the house of Saud have been sealed with multiple marriages. The Wahabis' sway over mosques has ebbed and flowed, but they possess their own notorious religious police and have extended their reach via networks of schools throughout the Muslim world.

It is difficult to pinpoint the boundaries of Wahabism. It is not a religion or an offshoot of Islam. Its followers are not a tribe or ethnic group, and they prefer to identify themselves as muwahiddun, which means "the unifiers." As Abdallah Al Obeid, the former dean of the Islamic University of Medina and member of the Saudi Consultative Council, explains, Wahabism is a political trend within Islam that has been adopted for power-sharing purposes. "It has no special practices, nor special rites, and no special interpretation of religion that differ from the main body of Sunni Islam," he says.

It is, however, extremely austere and rigid. It tolerates little dialogue and less interpretation. It frowns on idolatry, tombstones or the veneration of statues and artworks. Wahabis forbid smoking, shaving of beards, abusive language, rosaries and many rights for women. They expect their followers to pray five time a day and they regard all those who don't practice their form of Islam, including other Muslims, as heathens and enemies.

Their prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the 1950s, Cairo, infused with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalism, was the intellectual center of the Arab world. But the massive Israeli victory over Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War dealt a blow to Nasser's prestige. Islamic religious leaders stepped into that ideological vacuum.

When the big oil money of the 1970s started flooding the Persian Gulf region, the balance in religious matters shifted away from the progressive Levantine version of Islam that existed in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, to the Wahabis' rigid tendencies. As millions of Egyptian, Moroccan, Pakistani and other guest workers poured into Saudi Arabia, they returned home with both money and a new religion. Egypt started to tip over. Anwar Sadat, who had struck his own alliance with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to fight the remnants of Nasserism, was killed by it. Later there were at least five attempts by Islamic extremists against the life of his successor, Hosni Mubarak.

The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan gave radical Islam a chance to deploy its military prowess. Wahabis in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt profited, fattening their ranks with new recruits and coffers with new contributions. At that time, the American government considered the Saudis' links with these groups useful. With the encouragement of the Carter and Reagan administrations, the Saudis funded the jihad against the Soviets jointly with the CIA, while Egypt gave the mujaheddin arms from its arsenal and Pakistan provided land and training grounds.

Ironically, the money that brought Wahabis power throughout the Arab world and financed networks of fundamentalist schools from Sudan to northern Pakistan, has also widened the gap between Wahabis and Arab societies. Increasingly, the Wahabi outlook is detested by the Saudi ruling elite, the growing middle class and the vast powerful business community in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month at a conference on Islam in Amman, Jordan's Crown Prince Hamzeh urged educational reforms to "prepare our students . . . to integrate into the modern world" and "set them free from their isolated mentality."

The attack on the United States by al Qaeda may spell the beginning of the end of this brand of radical Islamic extremism, as people in the region deal with the harm Wahabi disciple Osama bin Laden has done to the reputation and welfare of Muslims around the world. The entire Saudi religious establishment is under pressure from both the royal family and the Saudi public. For the first time, artists, politicians and pundits are openly criticizing the clergy in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and throughout the world of Islam. The historic alliance between the Sauds and Wahabis may be coming apart -- unless we in the United States intervene with unreasonable demands for instant reforms couched in barely disguised racial slurs. Instant anything in Saudi Arabia or the conservative world of Islam is impossible.

The simple-speak propagated by the Bush White House, has mixed mainstream Islam with Wahabism into a confusing mish-mash. The two are different. True, Arab governments coddled the fundamentalists. But so did we. The United States gave a green card to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in recognition for his service in rounding volunteers in Egypt to fight the Soviets. He ended up with a life sentence for conspiring to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and the World Trade Center.

I would argue that just as the 1967 war spelled the end of Nasserism, the Sept. 11 attack will mark the beginning of the end of radical extremist Islam in all its varieties. The money from Islamic charities is drying up. After Sept. 11, the "swamps" that provided recruits are drying up, too, so much so that two Islamic groups in Egypt, Jihad and al Gamaa al-Islamiya, have formally announced they are abandoning the armed struggle. In Saudi Arabia, half the population of 18 million sees Wahabism as oppressive. The same goes for people in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.

That does not automatically translate into loving the United States. The bin Laden attacks have given us an opening, though. Millions of Muslims who belong to the secular middle and business classes and the ruling elites also detest Muslim fundamentalists. But they equally detest our Middle East policy. It is time to bond with them on fighting fundamentalism without demanding that they subscribe to every one of our policies. Our friends there, the secularists, need to be offered a way to bond with us instead of being presented with simplistic choices of black and white.

Youssef M. Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

More on This Topic


Countering the Islamist Narrative

Speaker: Ed Husain

Ed Husain, CFR’s adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, discusses countering the Islamist narrative, as part of CFR's Religion...