Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to the United States?

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tags: Saudi Arabia



Giovanni Tortoriello, a graduate of the University of Salerno, is an Italian freelance journalist and HNN intern.


On 2 January Saudi Arabia executed 47 people charged in connection with terrorism, including the prominent Shia cleric, Shiek Nimr al Nimr, a decision which exacerbated Saudi's s relationship with Iran.

The same day the official Saudi Press Agency announced the ending of the truce with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen began in March 2015 after the request for assistance of the Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. On July Stephen O' Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-Generaly for Humanitarian Affairs, described Yemen as a “humanitarian catastrophe” and asked for a pause in the fighting. A ceasefire agreement was reached on 15 December, though the UN documented that from the beginning there were “numerous violations.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the closest allies of the United States in the Middle East, is a controversial regime whose official religious doctrine, Wahhabism, has been described as an ultraconservative religious movement.

The knowledge of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism's history is essential to understanding the contemporary turmoil in the Muslim World. For this reason, we contacted David Commins, Professor of History at Dickinson College and a specialist in Islamic thought. We interviewed him by email.

Giovanni Tortoriello: Historians have given different definitions of Wahhabism. What is your definition of this religious movement?

David Commins: It is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), in particular his theology.

Giovanni Tortoriello: What are the most critical things people should know about the history of Wahhabism to understand what’s happening today?

David Commins: The Saudi dynasty and the Wahhabi establishment have been allies for 270 years. They began their rise to domination over much of Arabia together. Their alliance began in 1744 when Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of an oasis town (not the leader of a nomadic tribe) gave refuge to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose preaching got him expelled from two other oasis towns in the previous four years. The Saudis conquered most of Arabia in the next sixty years.

With Saudi support, Wahhabi clerics purged other Sunni Muslim tendencies. A military campaign launched from Egypt in 1811 waged a seven-year war to crush the Saudis. The Saudis recovered power in 1824, leading to a second phase of rule that lasted until 1891 when a rival Arabian power conquered them and forced them into exile in Kuwait. The Saudis reconquered Arabia between 1902 and 1932, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was proclaimed.

Giovanni Tortoriello: As you underlined in your book, The Wahhabi Mission and Saud Arabia,adherents of this movement prefer to be called Salafi or muwahhid. Why?

David Commins: The term “Wahhabi” was coined by Muslim religious scholars opposed to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings to indicate their belief that his teachings were his particular opinions and that they did not belong to the consensus of Sunni religious scholars. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers have always stenuously asserted that his teachings were in accord with the sources of Islamic belief and practice, the Quran and the Prophetic Tradition. They saw themselves as calling to true understanding of monotheism, or “tawhid” in Arabic. The term “muwahhid” means one who calls to monotheism.

They did not refer to themselves as Salafi until the twentieth century, apparently in an attempt to overcome the stigma associated with the term “Wahhabi.” By that time, “Salafi” had gained currency among Sunni thinkers as a term to mean Islam as practiced in the time of the Prophet, so if Wahhabis could become known as Salafis, they would have a claim to a universal version of Islam, not one that was identified with a particular teacher (Ibn Abd al-Wahhab) and a particular place (Central Arabia).

Giovanni Tortoriello: You argued that the core difference between Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi Muslims is the definition of monotheims. Please explain this.

David Commins: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab maintained that the phrase “no god but God” in the Muslim testimony of faith – “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” – had a meaning that eluded others professing to be Muslim. There was no debate over the idea that people must worship God and must not worship any creature.

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, however, put a different twist on this issue in two ways. First, he argued that many popular religious beliefs and practices were forbidden idolatry because they set people up as intermediaries between the believer and God. For example, it was common to appeal to living and dead holy men (think Imams honored by the Shia or popular Sufi personalities) to intercede with God. Sunni Muslim scholars held a variety of views on these practices. Some thought they were perfectly fine; others thought they were misguided but not necessarily idolatrous. Second, because Ibn Abd al-Wahhab considered people who engaged in these practices to be idolaters, he concluded it was legal to shed their blood and plunder their property. In essence, he was applying a judgment of “takfir” to professing Muslims and the accompanying punishment against unbelievers.

Giovanni Tortoriello: Many commentators argue that in Qatar there is a less strict interpretation of Wahhabism than in Saudi Arabia. Do you agree?

David Commins: I don’t know the situation in Qatar.

Giovanni Tortoriello: How does Wahhabism affect contemporary terrorist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda?

David Commins: The term doctrinal cousins captures the relationship of similarity but not identity among them. It is very difficult to measure influence. One careful study of influences on militants found that a Jordanian Salafi is the most prominent figure and that Saudi/Wahhabi clerics are not major influences on militants. Nevertheless, a central tenet in Wahhabi teachings is shared by the other two groups, namely, befriending believers and bearing enmity toward unbelievers. The emphasis on that tenet as an essential aspect of belief is at minimum religious bigotry, and at worst, a justification for attacking unbelievers.

An important distinction between Wahhabism and ISIS and Al-Qaeda lies in their different political outlooks. Wahhabism endorses loyalty to established authority as long as it supports Islam (according to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam). It has never made an issue of the caliphate, which ISIS considers essential, partly because the Saudi dynasty lacks a crucial qualification for the caliphate: descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s clan. Al-Qaeda’s primary cause is jihad against the West, not establishing Wahhabi-style religious observance. And although it does embrace Wahhabi/Salafi outlook, it has not made sectarian warfare against Shia a priority. Finally, Wahhabi clerics reserve authority to declare jihad to the ruler whereas Al-Qaeda considers jihad a duty with or without an established ruler.

Giovanni Tortoriello: All U.S. presidents say that they want to defeat terrorism, but Saudi Arabia continues to be a close ally of United States in Middle East. Is there a contradiction?

David Commins: In fact, there are two contradictions. First, since 2003, the Saudi government has waged a campaign to suppress terrorism at home. Dozens of Saudi police and security forces have been killed in gun battles against terrorists. The crown prince was injured by a suicide bomber. In that sense, the Saudi government is fully committed to suppressing terrorism.

Second, the Saudi government gets tied up in knots when it comes to purging the ethos of enmity toward unbelievers from religious and educational institutions, which many consider a significant factor in shaping attitudes receptive to terrorism. Part of the difficulty is that the Saudi government is inefficient—people there carp that government offices cannot get anything done, similar to complaints in other countries. So to the extent that the government wants to change things, its own capacity is limited. In addition, there is a sizable Wahhabi “lobby” entrenched in religious and educational institutions that are as good at using bureaucratic intertia to resist change as entrenched lobbies elsewhere. Another part of the difficulty is that the royals depend on Wahhabi backing for their legitimacy with much of the public. Governments normally avoid alienating reliable constituencies, and in this regard, the Saudi monarchy is normal.

When critics of Saudi Arabia urge Washington to just “get tough” and somehow force it to change, they do not take stock of possible ramifications that would lead to even more instability, violence, and terrorism in and from the Middle East. Sudden political change in Saudi Arabia would almost certainly not result in a liberal, tolerant regime. Rather, a belligerent, anti-Western regime is more likely.

Giovanni Tortoriello: How does the access to oil export revenue affect the fortunes of Wahhabism around the world?

David Commins: Without money from oil sales, Wahhabi missionary activities would have to operate on a shoestring. So oil income is an essential part of the picture that enables Wahhabism to compete with local religious traditions by paying for the constructions of schools, mosques, clinics, and religious institutes to spread Wahhabism, as well as to fund scholarships for Muslims to study at Saudi universities.

Giovanni Tortoriello: In your article “Religious Reformers and Arabists in Damascus 1885-1914,” you wrote that in 19th century Syrian Salafis asserted that Islam was compatible with reason, progress and science. Do most Muslims agree today? Do you?

David Commins: I don’t know whether most Muslims today would agree or not. I have not studied public opinion surveys and do not even know if public opinion surveys in Muslim countries raise this question. I think Islam is like any other major historical tradition in that it is broad enough to be redefined according to time and place. To take an example from the Wahhabi tradition, the clerics opposed public schooling for girls when it began in the 1960s. Nowadays, women outpace men in attending university. Or take an example from the Iranian clerics: In the early 1900s, conservative clerics rejected constitutional government as un-Islamic, and in the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeini rejected monarchy and claimed constitutional government is Islamic. What matters is the momentary and local political configuration---the religious interpretation bends to that configuration. So reason, progress, and science could certainly be elevated to primary principles in a religious framework that emphasizes general principles and values rather than narrow rules.

Giovanni Tortoriello: In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Wahhabi declared a jihad against the Soviets. As we know, Wahhabi present this war as a trimph. What was the impact of this event on the contemporary Muslim world?

David Commins: The idea of the Afghan jihad as a Wahhabi triumph is a case of excellent PR by Wahhabis and Salafis. The contribution of Arab volunteers, among whom Wahhabis were a fragment, to the Soviet defeat was marginal. The war was won by Afghan fighters, most of them not aligned with the few, small Wahhabi factions. Nevertheless, Al Qaeda made a lot of the pan-Muslim effort and persuaded many in the Muslim world that it was the key to victory. The actual impact of the pan-Muslim campaign was to create a generation of fighters, fundraisers, logistics experts, and communications/media specialists, coming from all over the Muslim world, who could deploy to other sites of confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims, such as Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Giovanni Tortoriello: On 2 January Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. This decision has worsened Saudi Arabia's already hostile relationship with Iran. What is your opinion about this? How do you think Saudi -Iranian relationships will evolve?

David Commmins: The execution fits into the view that the Saudi leadership believes there is no chance for improving relations with Iran for the foreseeable future because Iran (in the Saudi view) is fully committed to an aggressive policy of seeking regional domination by fully supporting its regional allies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where they are engaged in violent conflict against Saudi Arabia’s allies.

Just as crucially, the Saudis regard Iran as the reason for political unrest in Bahrain. They dismiss the idea common in the US and Europe that Bahrain’s unrest stems from the refusal of that country’s autocratic dynasty to implement reforms that would broaden political rights and participation.

The Saudis also consider Iran the reason for political unrest among Saudi Shiites in the sensitive, oil-rich eastern province, just across the water from Bahrain. Again, they reject the idea common in the US and Europe that Saudi Shiites harbor grievances arising from discrimination, hostile religious broadcasts, and government neglect of their towns’ and villages’ needs for economic development. Sheikh al-Nimr’s execution is apparently intended to intimidate Saudi Shiites and quell protest. Analysts also point out that because most of the executions targeted Sunni extremists, the leadership wanted to deflect criticism from staunch Wahhabis by “balancing” those executions by punishing Shiites as well.

In the end, it boils down to the Saudi leadership’s firm conviction that negotiation and compromise are useless in blocking Iran’s quest (as the Saudis see it) for regional domination and that the only “language” Iran understands is force. The same perception drives Riyadh’s opposition to the international accord on Iran’s nuclear program. For now, Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a prolonged stalemate on multiple fronts. There is no sign that either side is prepared to back down.

Giovanni Tortoriello: Saudi Arabia announced offically the ending of truce with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Actually, on 20 December UN said that thare had benn numerous violations of the ceasefire agreement. In your opinion, what are the reasons of this decision bu Saudi's kingdom?

David Commins: It seems the Saudis regard the Houthis as puppets of Iran, therefore the Saudis believe that initiatives to bring about truces and ceasefires are doomed to fail. The same perception operates here as noted above: Iran is the real mover of local events and the only way to deal with Iran is by using force.

Giovanni Tortoriello: In your book, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, you conclude that Wahhabism’s future is uncertain. What are the likely possibilities?

David Commins: In the short term, the government’s reacton to the Arab Spring in 20111 was to bolster the Wahhabi religious institution in order to shut down liberal calls for reform and to portray Shia demands for rights as subversion. In the long term, declining oil revenues may increase pressures for gradual political opening that would provide liberals a foothold for making inroads in public affairs at the expense of Wahhabi domination of education, censorship, and public morality. Another possible development that could arise with budget retrenchment is a restrengthening of the Awakening movement, which blends Wahhabi theology with an insistence on a larger role for religious activists in public affairs compared to the traditional Wahhabi acceptance of royal authority in domestic and foreign policy.



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