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Wahhabism is often referred to as a cult-like denomination of Sunni Islam that is responsible for radicalizing young men across the Middle East and beyond. But the movement is more than just an ultra-conservative ideology; it is also a political system.
The ideology first surfaced in the Najd region, now part of Saudi Arabia, in the 1700s. David Long, a specialist in Saudi Arabia and international terrorism, notes that Wahhabism is essentially a reactionary and fundamentalist reform movement.
From the start, Wahhabism was highly exclusive. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, the father of the movement, was a student of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, which is considered the most conservative strand of Sunni Islam. He was impacted significantly by the fundamentalist religious scholar Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya, who advocated a religious doctrine that was based on the Koran and Sunna.
Early Wahhabism thus rejected practices or beliefs that deviated from these two reference points. Not surprisingly, the teachings of Abd al-Wahab were extremely hostile to Shia Muslims as well as Jews and Christians, which the Koran refers to as ‘people of the book’.
Although Abd al-Wahab’s message spread widely, many emirs feared the extremist reformer and his brutal tactics. He eventually found sanctuary in the town of Diriyah – located on the outskirts of Riyadh – after being banished from a nearby oasis. The ruler of Diriyah, Muhammad ibn Saud, welcomed Abd al-Wahab and promised him protection.
The two men made a deal. Ibn Saud promised to support the expansion of Abd al-Wahab’s movement through jihad, and agreed to hand him a monopoly over the interpretation of Islamic texts. In return, Ibn Saud would be the political leader of the Wahhabi movement. This alliance, which was born in 1744, set the stage for the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Tribes from around the Arabian Peninsula started to join forces with Diriyah, either because they were convinced of Abd al-Wahab’s teachings or because they feared that their towns would be raided and pillaged if they refused. Just like in Saudi Arabia today, nobody was free to question Abd al-Wahab’s teachings.
After Abd al-Wahab’s death, his descendants (the Sheikh family) continued to control religious affairs under Saudi rule. To this day, they continue to legitimize the ruling House of Saud by approving succession and endorsing the king’s decisions. In return, the Sheikh family enjoys privileged positions, including in the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
Despite the long-standing alliance, some Saudi rulers tried to reduce the influence of the kingdom’s Wahhabi origins by gradually modernizing the country. King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, for one, launched the first television broadcast and promoted public education for women. However, his decisions were unpopular with much of the Saudi establishment, including his nephew who assassinated him in 1975.
Four years later, in 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by a group of insurgents, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi who declared his brother in law the Mahdi (savior). According to the Koran, the Mahdi will rule for several years before the Day of Judgment.
For two weeks, hundreds of pilgrims and security forces were killed while trying to retake the sacred mosque. Many in the Saudi establishment believed that the incident was a punishment from God for failing to comply with the strict religious teachings of Wahhabism. The kingdom responded by emboldening Wahhabism, and cracking down on citizens who were believed to violate the doctrine. The irony was striking; al-Otaybi and his men were killed, but their worldview prevailed.
The same year, the Iranian revolution erupted, leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. For decades, Saudi Arabia had been bankrolling insurgents and repressive allies worldwide to offset the influence of communism. Now, the kingdom would export its ideology to counter Iran.
Most estimates indicate that Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars to embolden reactionary Islamic movements abroad. If true, this amount far surpasses the money the Soviet Union invested in communism.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has suffered a violent backlashy. The most famous example of this is the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Fifteen of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi citizens. While Saudis were easier to recruit for the mission than other Arab nationals due to freer visa regulations, it is clear that the Saudi attackers shared a similar worldview to the most conservative Wahhabi clerics in the kingdom. More disturbing, some US officials claim that there is evidence to suggest that members of the Saudi government facilitated the mission.
The kingdom has nonetheless become a chief ally in the so-called war on terror. William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar, claims that the Saudis are both “the arsonists and the firefighters”, when it comes to combatting Islamic extremism.
“The Saudis promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he told The New York Times. “[The Saudis] provide ideological fodder for violent jihadists. Yet at the same time they’re [America’s partners] in fighting terrorism.”
Terrorist groups that have either been supported or inspired by Wahhabism, and the political system it has spawned, include al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Ironically, these groups are even more religiously intolerant than the kingdom itself. Like al-Otaybi, they have terrorized the kingdom for its friendly relations with the ‘West’. In 2016, IS carried out as many as 25 different attacks inside the kingdom over an eight-month period.
Realizing the threat that Islamic extremists pose to the ruling House of Saud, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has said that it is time for the kingdom to ‘return’ to moderate Islam – an era that many scholars say never existed in Saudi Arabia.
Observers nonetheless hope that MBS will succeed in curtailing the influence of Wahhabi clerics. Then again, his foreign policy does not appear to offer an effective means to combat terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen is a case in point. With the country now completely fragmented, extremists have thrived.
Meanwhile, the correlation between Wahhabism and jihadist extremism remains hotly contested. David Long, for one, ponders the myriad of factors that cause a person to commit acts of terrorism in the name of an ideology, whether religious or secular. For him, it is not the doctrine that compels someone to turn to violence, but the ‘pre-existing hostility in a stressful world’.
‘There are certainly firebrand Wahhabis who adhere to and encourage contemporary jihadist terrorism, but their hostility does not emanate from the doctrines of the fundamentalist religious reform movement of Ibn Abd al-Wahab,’ he writes. ‘Moreover, most contemporary jihadist terrorists are not adherents of Wahhabism. The two categories, Wahhabism and contemporary jihadism, are not synonymous.’