Debating An Islamic Ideology

Saudi Arabia looks within as violence hits home
Newsday, June 22, 2003

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – As a teenager, Mansour al-Nougaidan didn’t think adults went far enough in enforcing the strict form of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. So he dropped out of high school, opened his own mosque and began issuing fatwas to root out Western corruption from Saudi society.

His fatwas, or religious decrees, targeted fast-food restaurants, clothing shops and any other symbol of foreign influence. After his supporters bombed a video store in Riyadh in 1985, al-Nougaidan was arrested and his makeshift mosque was shut down.

During several stints in prison, he was exposed to different interpretations of Islam than the Wahhabi doctrine that has dominated Saudi Arabia for more than 70 years. Al-Nougaidan says his prison readings turned him into one of Wahhabism’s fiercest critics.

Now a 33-year-old writer, al-Nougaidan is at the forefront of an emerging debate in Saudi society that asks whether Wahhabism is a root cause of militant Islamic violence around the world. The question has taken on a new urgency after last month’s suicide bombings of foreigners’ three housing compounds in Riyadh, which killed 34 people.

“Many of today’s radical groups draw at least part of their religious justifications from Wahhabi ideology,” said al-Nougaidan, who rarely goes out in public and does not answer his cell phone because of the numerous death threats he has received. “For too long, Saudi society has been exposed to only one school of religious thought. It teaches hatred of Jews, Christians and even other Muslims who are deemed too liberal.”

New debate over Wahhabism – and other long-proscribed topics such as government corruption and democratic reforms – poses a risk for this country’s rulers. Since World War II, the ruling Saud family has managed a tenuous pair of alliances: one as an ally and major oil supplier to the United States, and the other as a political partner with Wahhabi clerics who dominate social and religious policy here. The clerics have long vilified America and the West.

Pressures are growing from inside and outside the kingdom on the House of Saud to limit its alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment. But the monarchy has long rested its legitimacy on its religious credentials, and it is unclear how far the Sauds are willing to distance themselves from Wahhabi teachings. The Sauds also face a challenge from extremists like Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida network has been blamed for the May 12 attacks. Bin Laden, a Saudi exile whose brand of militant Islam springs from Wahhabi roots, accuses the ruling family of straying from Islam.

Last month’s bombings transformed the debate about religiously motivated violence from one where Saudis had largely blamed outside forces – such as the radical Islamic groups that coalesced around the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – into one of national introspection.

“After the May 12 attacks, the debate over extremism has reached into many areas that were off-limits: government corruption, economic reform, human rights and Wahhabism,” said Abdulaziz al-Qasim, a former judge who is now one of the kingdom’s leading moderate Islamist lawyers. “But reformers still have to tread carefully in their critique of Wahhabi doctrine. Otherwise, the window of opportunity could close because of a backlash from the religious establishment.”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, reformers attempted to open a similar debate. But the discussion was drowned out by anger among many Saudis that their entire society was being demonized because of the actions of a few religious zealots. The government, for its part, has long argued that Saudi militants learned false notions about Islam outside the kingdom.

“From what you hear on American TV and what you read in the newspapers, you would think that Saudi society was behind what happened on Sept. 11,” said Abdulaziz al-Fayez, a member of the kingdom’s Shura, a consultative council. “After May 12, it might become clearer to our American friends that we are as much victims of terrorism as they were. … This is not a society that is producing terrorists.”

This desert kingdom is full of gleaming office towers, strip malls with brand-name American stores and highways packed with Buicks and Chevrolets. But modern commerce comes to a halt five times a day, with each call to prayer. The conservative religious establishment has great authority in Saudi Arabia, and a religious police force roams the country looking for moral infractions, such as women not wearing veils or being out in public with men who are not their relatives.

That there is any public discussion of Wahhabism is remarkable, because for years it was taboo to mention the word. Many Saudis disputed that there was even such a thing as a Wahhabi school of thought within Islam; they preferred to call it true Islam.

Wahhabism seeks to return Islam to its “pure” form, as it was practiced by the prophet Muhammad and his followers in 7th century Arabia. The movement was founded by an 18th-century preacher, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who accused his fellow Muslims of deviating from their religion by venerating saints and promoting superstitions. Al-Wahhab argued that Islam should be based on a literal interpretation of only two sources: the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and the Sunnah, the collection of the prophet’s sayings and actions.

The movement does not look kindly on non-Muslims, and some scholars say it has been too quick to declare some Muslims unbelievers for disagreeing with it. In its most extreme form, Wahhabi doctrine also supports permanent jihad or “holy war” to spread its austere interpretation of the faith. Some Wahhabis have a tendency to label Western influences as “infidel,” a term that invokes the use of holy war.

Such anti-Western views aid bin Laden or other extremists in finding recruits, reformers argue, because they can convince young men that their faith condones violence against non-Muslims.

“By constantly describing the United States as a devil, or Satan or an infidel, this could make our young people hate America and want to take violent action against it,” said Mojeb Zahrani, a comparative literature professor at King Saud University in Riyadh and a leading reformer. “This rhetoric has an effect on people, especially impressionable young people. Those who spew this kind of rhetoric must take responsibility for it.”

Saudi intellectuals blame an anti-Western world view that for years has pervaded the educational system. One religious textbook for 10th-graders cites verses of Scripture that warn Muslims of the dangers of having Christian and Jewish friends. The lesson concludes: “It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy.”

“Some of the things in the religious textbook are really out of hand,” said a Saudi businessman who asked not to be named. He sends his two children to private schools. “Anything different or foreign is viewed as the ‘other,’ and students are taught to hate it.”

Religion is not the only problem. Young Saudis are frustrated by falling living standards and their inability to find jobs. With half the 14-million native population under age 25, some estimates say unemployment among the young is as high as 30 percent.

Most Saudi officials insist that the kingdom does not have a homegrown terrorism problem. Prince Nayef, the interior minister, has repeatedly said Saudi Arabia faces no greater issue of terrorism than any other country. “Why so much concentration on Saudis?” he asked at a news conference last month.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s de facto ruler since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1996, has promised to push ahead economic reforms, political liberalization and plans to open up more areas of work to women. Saudi intellectuals have been pressing for more reforms, such as an elected legislature, a constitution, establishment of political parties and more rights for women in a land where they cannot even drive.

The ruling family also has pledged to crack down on militancy. “We will not allow the existence of a deviant ideology that encourages and feeds terrorism, even if they falsely try to promote it in the name of piety,” King Fahd said in a rare, televised speech after last month’s bombings.

Already, there are signs that the religious establishment has sought to rein in militants. In April, the kingdom’s most senior cleric, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, declared that accusing other Muslims of being unbelievers – which has been the official attitude toward members of minority Islamic sects such as Shiism and Sufism – is not permitted under Islam.

“Charging other Muslims with whom one may differ as disbelievers results in murdering innocent people, destroying facilities, disorder and instability,” said the white-bearded mufti.

The relationship between the Sauds and Wahhabis dates back to 1745, when the leader of Arabia’s most powerful tribe made a military alliance with al-Wahhab. In 1932, when Abdel Aziz bin Saud succeeded in unifying the tribes of Arabia into modern-day Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism became the country’s official religious doctrine. Since then, the Sauds have controlled key portfolios like the defense, foreign relations, oil and interior ministries, while Wahhabis have dominated social and religious affairs.

“This is a ruling dynasty that remains in power based on its religious credentials,” said al-Qasim. “There’s resistance from many quarters to change.”

He said that with every challenge to the House of Saud’s rule, such as the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of extremists, the dynasty has ceded more ground on social affairs to shore up its Islamic credentials.

Others argue that a theological tenet of early Wahhabism opened the door for extremism. The early Wahhabis insisted that any individual believer had the right to interpret the holy texts independently. This, according to critics, has let extremists emphasize some parts of Islamic Scriptures that fit their jihadist view, over others that do not.

“Any 22-year-old who went to fight for a few months in Afghanistan or Bosnia or Chechnya comes back and declares himself a sheik and starts issuing fatwas,” said Miassar al-Shammari, a Saudi political editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. “What kind of religious authority is that?”

Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer who has ties to Saudi extremists but rejects violence, said several of the May 12 suicide bombers visited him in January. He said he knew nothing of their plans or their al-Qaida affiliation until recognizing them from photos after the attacks. “They told me that they didn’t trust the government and the official scholars,” al-Awajy said. “They said that they have their own religious scholars and they only listened to them. How do you argue with people like that?”

Inside Saudi Arabia

A glimpse of life in the oil-rich kingdom, for more than 70 years a key U.S. ally in the Arab world.

The Land and People

The country is as large as Alaska and Texas combined. Its once sparse population has been booming,

and now 24 million people live mostly in cities that dot the mostly desert terrain. Saudis’ values are shaped by Islam and their pride in being the “holy land” of a worldwide faith; by their strong tribal and family ties; and by an emotional attachment to the desert and the nomadic life of their forebears.

The Economy

Oil provides 90 percent of export earnings, a disaster when oil prices fall. Unemployment is 15 percent to

20 percent and, with half of all Saudis younger than 25, it seems likely to rise. The economy is growing only slowly, largely because of rampant corruption, the country’s isolation and a bloated government bureaucracy.

The Sauds and the United States

After years of tribal wars, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud seized control in 1932 and formed the kingdom that bears his name. He allied with the U.S. to get a powerful protector and a partner to help develop his oil wealth. Saudi Arabia now supplies about 8 percent of the U.S.’ oil. In 1990, when Iraqi troops seized Kuwait, the Sauds invited U.S. troops in to help defend the country. A decade later, the U.S.-Saudi alliance grew strained after Saudis took part in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Wahhabism and the Saud family

In the 1700s, a Muslim preacher, Muhammad bin Abd Wahhab, began the puritanical movement that bears his name. It stresses a literal reading of the Quran, notably verses that warn Muslims against relations with non-Muslims. Wahhabi clerics formed an alliance with the Saud family, accompanied it into power in the 1900s and now control much of domestic policy. But many Wahhabis – notably Osama bin Laden – condemned the Saud family for accepting U.S. troops into the country. The Wahhabi-Saud alliance is increasingly strained.

Comments are closed.