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The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!

From January 1857 to September 2007, the New York Times published eighty-six items that mention ‘Wahhabism’–a ‘puritanical’ (salafi) Islamic creed named after its 18th century Arabian founder, Abd al-Wahhab. Six appeared before the attacks of September 2001, while eighty have appeared since. Although the frequency of references has tapered of late, giving way to more generic terms like ‘Islamo-fascism,’ Wahhabism continues to be stridently linked to Al-Qaeda; the Taliban Movement; the madrasas of Pakistan; the Sunni resistance in Iraq; the war in Chechnya; unrest in Dagestan; anti-government activism in Uzbekistan; multifarious attempted and successful bombings in Europe and elsewhere; the need for change in US foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia; the security threat posed by mosques in the US; and, review of the US armed forces’ chaplaincy policy.

The same links are often echoed in other dailies as well as such current affairs magazines as Newsweek, and are by no means restricted to the US media, as attested by contributors to Canada’s Globe and Mail, Britain’s London Times, France’s Le Monde diplomatique and Russia’s Pravda. Many works of non-fiction also follow suit, including Charles Allen’s God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, and Stephen Schwartz’s, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud from Tradition to Terror. Nor are late works of fiction exempted, as illustrated by Richard A. Clark’s novel of international political intrigue, The Scorpion’s Gate (2005). Given that Clark was associated with the US State Department, Pentagon and White House for three decades, not to mention the ‘lapdog’ stance assumed by mainstream media outlets since ‘9/11,’ the US government is clearly on, if not behind the reins of this bandwagon–a point amply illustrated by the alarmed tone of a recently published hearing by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, titled ‘Terrorism: Growing Wahhabi Influence in the US’ (2004), as well as the ‘9/11 Commission Report’ (2004), by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US, which concludes that Al-Qaeda belongs to the ‘stream’ of Islam commonly termed Wahhabism.

Although I will not suggest that this rhetoric is hegemonic, there can be no doubt that the idea of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against the ‘West’ has, since 9/11, become lodged in the colloquial psyche of many in the US and beyond. The collective argument, however, can be reduced to three pieces of ‘evidence’:

1) Usama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 highjackers were Saudi Arabians;

2) Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi madrasas (schools), masjids (mosques) and imams (preachers) from South East Asia to Europe and North America, creating an ideologically and operationally coherent ‘network’ in which Al-Qaeda plays a leadership role; and,

3) Wahhabism is not only ‘puritanical,’ it is ‘militantly anti-Western.’ In short, Wahhabism is identified as the theology behind ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Yet, there are a number of glaring omissions in this perspective, beginning with the fact that the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia–the sole state sponsor of Wahhabism–routinely issue decrees condemning jihad against the European and North American states, while Usama bin Laden has vociferously castigated renowned clerics (including Wahhabis) as ‘slaves of apostate regimes’ like Saudi Arabia.

As well, although Saudi Arabian funds have been used to establish various religious institutions across the globe, not only are they in the minority from state to state, but the most militant madrasas, etc., are not Saudi funded or Wahhabi in intellectual orientation. For example, in Pakistan (noted by the above governmental, media and pseudo-academic sources as a breeding ground for militant Wahhabism), an International Crisis Group study conducted in 2002, found that ninety percent of the madrasas catering to one and half million students, were proponents of South Asian ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Barelvi’ thought, while the remaining ten percent could be shared between ‘Jama’at-i Islami’ (Maududian), ‘Shi’a’ and Wahhabi organizations. The handful of madrasas promoting militancy (including the Taliban Movement) are not Wahhabi, but Deobandi, and their initial funding came from the US during the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), extending to textbooks produced by USAID and Ronald Reagan’s reference to their students as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America].’ Even a recent USAID report (2003) acknowledges that the link between madrasas and violence is ‘rare,’ and the same perspective has been forwarded to the US Congress in at least two Congress Research Services reports updated in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

The most damning indictment of the non-scholarly perspective, however, is the fact that Al-Qaeda’s leadership is well known in scholarly circles to have been largely inspired by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb (d.1966), a late leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while within the ‘Salafi’ fold, the Brotherhood, Wahhabism, Qutbism, Deobandism and Maududism, differ on issues as fundamental as the defensive or offensive nature of jihad, the legitimacy of ‘suicide bombings’ and civilian targets, the status of women, the legitimacy of electoral politics, nationalism, Pan-Islamism, Shi’ism and Sufism in Muslim society.

Demarcating the gaping chasm between scholarly and governmental/media/pseudo-academic perspectives should not be read as apologia for Wahhabism, let alone the Saudi Arabian regime that promotes it. As outlined by the eminent historian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, many decades ago, Wahhabism rejects the “introvert warmth and other-worldly piety” of Islam’s “mystical way,” the rationalism of “philosophy” and “theology” and the sectarianism of the “Shi’a.” In fact, Wahhabism rejects the very “interpretation of Islamwhich had become dominant” by the 18th century. As for the Saudi Arabian regime, there is little need for scholarly citations to contend that it is despotic, employing the Wahhabi creed to legitimate kingship and allow no forms of dissent within its borders.

The import of the distinction between representations of Wahhabism lies in the number of questions non-scholarly rhetoric raises about its origins and purpose in Europe and North America. To be sure, incompetence in government and elsewhere can not be discounted in explaining the distance between what is known and what is believed. However, the history of the idea of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against ‘Western’ interests makes it plain that more directed concerns are also involved. Consider the following quote. “[D]uring many years past the Wahhabis have pursued a system in raising supplies for the support of the fanatics living beyond the North-West Frontier, who are waging war against the Government.” No, these are not the words of a Whitehouse spokesperson commenting on the current debacle in ‘North-West Frontier Province’ of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. These are the words of a colonial officer, uttered in 1868 and referencing the forces ranged against British rule in that same area. They were spoken in the context of a series of prosecutions called the ‘Wahhabi Trials,’ in which Muslims suspected of involvement in 30 years of anti-colonial activity, culminating in the ‘Great Indian Mutiny’ of 1857, were heard, convicted and executed or transported.

As the London Times had already published letters making the case that among these ‘fanatics’ were a number of Muslim ‘philosophers and historians’ (that is, clerics), the trials that followed the 1857 Uprising were quite explicitly directed against clerical groups, with particular emphasis placed on the prosecution of Muslim ‘chaplains’ in the British Indian Army. Furthermore, as it had been reported from the field that in ‘every station, in every citythe movers of the present rising have agents sowing discontent and circulating intelligence,’ vast swaths of the general Muslim population were identified with Wahhabism and placed under suspicion.

Indeed, even before the 1857 Uprising began, reporters of the colonial Allen’s India Mail, had tied earlier, more local insurrections to an ‘extraordinary system of network[that] unites together every town, village and hamlet’ in South Asia. Never mind that the fragmented nature of the 1857 Uprising and those that preceded it was well known to colonial officials and other segments of the press even commented on the local, socio-economic determinants of discontent. Never mind that it was also widely known and reported that Muslims and Hindus of various sects and classes had participated in these anti-colonial actions, while even more, including Wahhabis, had not. Never mind that even those deposed and convicted in the ‘Wahhabi Trials’ testified that they were not Wahhabis, a significant section of the colonial establishment and the press remained adamant that the activities of ‘seditious Wahhabis,’ driven solely by their ‘militantly anti-Western’ creed, were the root cause of all the British government’s failures in spreading Western ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ as part of its colonial ‘Civilizing Mission.’ As the Bishop of London put it in 1857, the ‘heathen’ must be ‘smote,’ before the ‘destinies of our race’ and the ‘progress of Christ and civilization’ can be extended from Britain.

If the longevity of the rhetoric of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against the ‘West’ is to be chalked up to the incompetence of its propagators, then it is ineptitude on a monumentally historic scale. Furthermore, it would also be necessary for the historian to attribute a century of cordial Anglo-American relations with actual Wahhabis to colossal oversight. After all, the Wahhabi Trials were no more than a few decades in the past when the British government, represented by ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ instigated the Wahhabi House of Saud’s revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, then followed up by supporting the same supposedly ‘anti-Western’ force against local rivals to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

As well, the historian would have to explain US involvement in the extraction of Saudi Arabian oil reserves from 1938 to the present as a further act of ignorance, given that the first mention of Wahhabism in the New York Times appears in a 1931 editorial that describes it as ‘traditional’ (itself a misnomer given the anti-traditionalist stance of ‘Abd al-Wahhab), but by no means ‘militantly anti-Western.’ Indeed, it was not until the 1990’s that Wahhabism made a limited comeback as a militant, though even then not necessarily anti-Western creed in US media and official circles. For example, in the New York Times, the US’ Afghan allies against the Soviets were identified as Wahhabis by August 1989, Chechen separatists as the same by August 1999, the Taliban and Pakistani madrasas as such by June 2000 and anti-government Uzbek forces in a letter dated August 2001. Still, there was no need for alarm.

The ‘problem’ of Wahhabism (outside of intra-Muslim sectarian strife) was only identified in October 2001, after the ‘9/11’ attacks on New York and Washington. Only after this event did a full-blown ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ became standard fare, with Wahhabism reprising its 19th century role as the ‘fanatical’ and ‘despotic’ antithesis of a ‘Civilized World’ defined by Western ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy.’

If not incompetence, then what explains the fact that historians of Islam and the Muslim World have long provided an alternative perspective to the theory of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy,’ while the same governmental and media outlets that tout this theory have had close relations with actual Wahhabis? I submit there is a conspiracy of sorts at play–one of willful over-simplification – but it is not a ‘Wahhabi,’ or even more broadly ‘Islamist,’ conspiracy direct against the ‘West.’ Rather, it is an official Anglo-American and, perhaps, more thoroughly ‘Western’ ruling-class propensity to obfuscate the political and socio-economic disenfranchisement that drives militancy in the Muslim World.

The prime victims of this ‘conspiracy’ are these governments’ constituents themselves. Considering that the rhetoric of a Wahhabi Conspiracy was contrived and employed by Britain against anti-colonial movements in the 19th century, while evidence to the contrary was present and the actual Wahhabis of Arabia came to enjoy close relations with Britain, confirms that it served to cynically conceal the political and socio-economic underpinnings of those very movements from their own citizens. The sudden resurrection of this discourse now, despite a greater body of scholarly evidence to the contrary, closer ties between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi regime and the US, as well as historical ‘alliances’ with the very groups today being prosecuted, makes the strongest suggestion that the contemporary rhetoric of a Wahhabi Conspiracy also serves as a mask for imperialist agendas and a carpet under which to sweep the protests and concerns of the Muslim classes disenfranchised as a result.

Now as then, Wahhabism’s use as a catch-all term erases the motives of broad and disparate groups seeking redress for local discontentment caused by the colonial/imperialist activities of the powers-that-be, in favour of an official perspective, eagerly lapped up by invested media and pseudo-academic supporters, that conveniently presents a coherent, coordinated and globally conspiratorial network of ideologically driven violence and hate. ‘The Wahhabis are coming,’ just as the ‘Commies’ once were.

M. REZA PIRBHAI is an assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University.

 

 

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M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).

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