M. Reza Pirbhai: The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!





[M. Reza Pirbhai is an assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University.]

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....



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