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Saudi Arabia Awakens To The Dangers Of Wahhabism
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A Muslim pilgrim prays outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Under King Abdullah, the kingdom has moved toward a more inclusive form of Islam.
By M. D. Nalapat
April 19, 2010
he faith that was founded more than 14 centuries ago in what is now Saudi Arabia still suffuses the daily life of
almost all the population there, as well as in most of the rest of the Middle East. Islam is at the core of their being, and it is for just this reason that the faith has been used to promote the geopolitical objectives of various dominant powers of the globe: the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and later the United States. In the 18th century, a preacher named Abdul Wahhab emerged with little understanding of the essence of Islam. His version of the faith -- which was, in several key respects, at variance with the softer, more inclusive teachings of the Sufi scholars favored by the Ottoman Empire -- struck a chord with the rugged, unlettered desert people of the peninsula. And it was swiftly identified by the British Empire as a useful wedge against Turkish influence in the region. With silent but potent help from Britain, the new doctrine spread across the Arabian Peninsula until it became
when the Soviet Union committed the ignoble act of invading Afghanistan.advised by so-called experts who viewed the local population as primitives needing a dose of extremism to keep morale high -. but because the Sauds themselves were rooted in the traditions of their land and its people. seeing extremism as an antidote to the influence of a geopolitical foe.were facilitated by Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq -. where religion was seen as a bulwark against the oppression of the nobility and thus spread rapidly among commoners.accepted by the family that finally unified the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In fact. Extremism Comes To Afghanistan Although Wahhabism was the official doctrine of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932. the House of Saud. This fateful decision brought the family the welcome backing of the British in their efforts to rid the peninsula of Ottoman influence. which wrongly regarded the Wahhabi faith as an important weapon against the Ottoman Turks.from the eighth to the 15th century A. Once again.of which 20 were years of peace. inclusive strand named Sufism. The Golden Age The Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in his 40th year. the Golden Age of Islam -. the House of Saud. He continued receiving revelations for nearly 23 more years -. a fateful error was then committed by the British Empire. but the reality is that the religion was attractive across the Middle East largely because of the human rights and dignity granted to believers in the faith. But that changed in 1979. The British appear to have encouraged the family that was unifying the Arabian tribes against the Turks.and who. Sadly. whose followers systematically desecrated even sites and structures associated with the life of the Prophet. There is a widespread misperception that Islam was spread by the sword. with the zeal of a convert. little effort was made to export it the beyond the Saudi borders. The obedience and loyalty of the Arab people was ultimately secured not through the teachings of an extremist preacher. some intelligence agencies made the same mistake as the British. which contrasted with the prevalent social divisions of the time. Indeed. Give that the peninsula at that time was wracked by conflict and rarely saw a month of peace between spells of turmoil. The expansion of Islam was not unlike the process by which Christianity swept over Europe. to embrace Wahhabism as their state doctrine. These agencies -.D. sought . as well as in their qualities of leadership.who had come to Wahhabism with a singular lack of scholarly knowledge about Islam -.the rest of his life -. whose own favored version of Islam was the syncretic. -. But this meant nothing to Wahhab. the Sauds did not really need Wahhabism.was marked not so much by conflict but by the honorable coexistence of different faiths under Muslim rulers and by the spread of knowledge across the Arab world. the remarkable achievement demonstrates the importance the Prophet attributed to peaceful conflict resolution.
During what may be termed the Horrible Hiatus (1995-2001). lacked the resolve to take on the extremist threat. Concurrently. And -. but effective control of the normally centralized Saudi system fell into the hands of a shadowy group of people who. The founder of the modern Saud dynasty. inclusive. a drive to spread Wahhabism across the globe was begun by Zia's allies in the Middle East. those in effective command of the Saudi regime joined with certain intelligence agencies in giving support to a cadre of fanaticized fighters fresh from training . failed to appreciate that they themselves would be the next targets of international Wahhabism. scientific Islam that is the only genuine version of the faith.that it had nothing to do with Islam. 2001. Or -. After the Wahhabis aimed their sights at the rule of the Saudi royal family in the mid 1990s.in other words -. He remained on the throne until his death in 2005. for the most part. when the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11 were Saudi citizens acted as a wake-up call for the monarchy.into conformity with the basic tenets of Islam. Zia ensured that hundreds of thousands of Afghan and other resistance fighters were infected with the Wahhabi strain of thought and offered combat assistance only to those who converted to Wahhabism. confident in his traditions. began immediately to take steps to return Saudi Arabia to the moderate. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the horror of the September 11. Only with the enthronement of King Abdullah did the House of Saud again have an effective ruler. He was helped in this by the popular support he received from Saudi citizens who appreciated the many welfare measures he introduced in the first 19 months of his reign. which stress the accumulation of knowledge and the need to adjust and learn from one's circumstances. it became clear that this doctrine was incompatible with the kingdom's stability.S. terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to convince these agencies that they erred in helping spread this doctrine to millions of Muslims.even more unforgivably -. thus discrediting clerics who called radio sets "the invention of Satan. in 1995. was a vigorous modernizer who overcame the objection of Wahhabis to the introduction of modern inventions such as the radio by repeatedly broadcasting verses from the Koran. From that time onward.to change the allegiance of his country's Muslims to the new faith. King Ibn Saud. because of poor health and other issues (not the least of which was the pro-Wahhabi policies of some of the Great Powers). Saudi King Fahd was incapacitated by a paralytic stroke. However. it was not possible to address the problem of Wahhabi ascendance seriously within the kingdom until 2001. however. but they failed to understand that the remedy was worse than the disease. It took the 1998 bombings of the U. Modernizing The Kingdom The new monarch. then-Crown Prince Abdullah took control over the Saudi administration and began the process of bringing the kingdom into sync with the modern era." However. They saw the doctrine as an antidote against communism. The anti-Soviet intelligence agencies.
and health facilities improved. the king opened the channels of learning and some fields of employment to women.000 executions. The king indicated his inclusive mindset by using secular India as the forum for announcing his public backing of the new Afghan constitution. saner elements in most of the few countries that initially backed the Taliban pulled back. Crucially. the ISI.) However. Crown Prince Abdullah consolidated his power in Saudi Arabia in 2000-05 and quickly ended the policy of massive cash infusions for the Taliban. it was no longer a crime for Saudis to watch television or movies in home theaters. Saudi Arabia. telephones. Women and children were among the victims.were denied to all except the new rulers (most of whom enjoyed a sybaritic lifestyle with funds provided for them by foreign intelligence agencies. and television -. This overreach brought down the force of the U. By 2005. This document reflects much more closely the gentle ethos of the Islam of the Golden Age than it does the views of the Wahhabi extremists. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a savage state where women were denied both education and occupation." thus disappointing those who sought to continue to tie Saudi Arabia to an extreme version of Islam. the relaxation of the previously suffocating rule of Wahhabi clerics (whose not-so-hidden objective was to convert Saudi Arabia into a Sunni version of Iran. He created vast new employment opportunities for Saudi citizens by making the employment of locals mandatory in enterprises that previously had only expatriate staff. New schools and colleges were opened. they took over Kabul in 1996. These extremists. was committed by King Abdullah to supporting President Hamid Karzai’s government and the new Afghan Constitution. they carried out 6. for the first time since Wahhabism was promoted by British intelligence a century back. many of them after first torturing the victims. Abdullah mainly concentrated on domestic reforms. Most importantly. Indeed. he went so far as to say during his 2006 state visit that India was his "second home.-led defeat of the Taliban in 2001. during this period. were given cash sufficient to enable them to buy out much of the opposition.S. and the angry Taliban leadership encouraged elements close to Osama bin Laden to carry out the 9/11 attacks. military against the Taliban. By that time. As a result. forced to obey numerous daily.S. In the four weeks after the Taliban militia took control of more than 80 percent of the country. where the mullahs would rule) was evident.camps staffed by the many Zia followers of Pakistan's openly jihadist military intelligence network. mindless orders of their Taliban tormentors and denied any autonomy. However. who began to call themselves the Taliban. They showed their contempt for international law by first torturing and castrating former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah (who was under the protection of the UN) and then hanging him. he walked away from the religious supremacy of Wahhabism into the open espousal of a multifaith world. books. by 1998. Although others before him had sought a "dialogue of faiths.including the Internet. He assisted in the U. which had backed the Taliban during the Horrible Hiatus (1995-2001). All sources of information -.” these efforts were previously . Backlash Brewing Suddenly Muslims throughout the world came face to face with real Wahhabism. Men were converted into robots.
has himself blessed the interfaith route. However.restricted to the Abrahamic faiths of Islam.Hinduism. scholars from all these faiths met in Geneva for three days and worked out road maps for religious reconciliation. D. and Sikhism. Less than a year ago. using his title as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. In contrast. and Christianity. Judaism. including in India (a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world). Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University. meetings similar to the one in Geneva are taking place across the world. With his strides toward the gentle Islam of the Golden Age. and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL Print Email Comment (12) Share: . the static created by the artificially developed school of Wahhabism has for a time muffled the voices of the moderate majority. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is leading the way back from the disaster into which Wahhabism (and its twin. Buddhism. which speaks only of believers in the Almighty and not of Muslims. Khomeinism) threaten to lead the world. King Abdullah's message was the same as that given in the Holy Koran. India. Now that the Saudi king.5 billion Muslims worldwide are no less tolerant and syncretic than their Christian and other brothers and sisters. M. The more than 1. King Abdullah broadened his search for consensus by bringing in faiths that were born in South and East Asia -. Jainism.
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