Accessibility links

Truth and Myth About Wahhabism - 2003-12-24

The term Wahhabism has become a source of misunderstanding. Simply defined, it is an ultra conservative interpretation of Islam born in 18th century Saudi Arabia. Today, many scholars and journalists equate it with Osama bin Laden and global terrorism. Others say that's a distortion. In light of a growing number of terrorist attacks, observers are debating the character of Wahhabism and whether it breeds militancy.

In late November, an article written by Saudi columnist Mansour al-Nogaidan appeared in The New York Times newspaper. The article, titled "Telling the Truth, Facing the Whip," criticized aspects of the Saudi religious establishment with disarming candor. Mr. al-Nogaidan said that Wahhabi clerics have indoctrinated generations of Saudis with intolerance and extremism. He added that state-sponsored preachers continue to call for the destruction of all non-Muslims.

Few Saudis have criticized Wahhabism for fear of angering the religious authority. But after the suicide bombings in the capital Riyadh last May, Saudis were shocked at such home-grown extremism. The violence sparked introspection among many Saudi citizens and Mr. al-Nogaidan is one of a growing number of young Saudi men openly challenging Wahhabi doctrine.

Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi who writes for the Al-Watan newspaper, says Mansour al-Nogaidan is one of the most famous voices to criticize Wahhabism from the inside. Mr. al-Nogaidan, a well-known writer for the Al-Riyadh daily, was a Wahhabi extremist for 11 years. Mr. al-Toraifi says what makes Mansour valuable is that he was not only a believer in Wahhabism, but also he was an activist.

After publicly calling for more freedom of speech and criticizing Wahhabism, Saudi authorities sentenced Mr. al-Nogaidan to 70 lashings and at least three days in jail.

A growing chorus of criticism within Saudi Arabia is fueling the debate about the nature of Wahhabism and whether its puritanical doctrine leads to militancy.

Tom Lippman is a former Washington Post newspaper correspondent who has been covering the Middle East for 25 years. He says “if you want to define Wahhabism, I think you can really make the case that the reform of Islam that was preached by Muhammad al-Wahhab back in the 18th century was not a pro-violent, anti-western movement per se.” Mr. Lippman is a scholar at the Middle East Institute here in Washington and author of the forthcoming book: Inside the Mirage: The American Experience in Saudi Arabia. He says the West often uses the term Wahhabism indiscriminately and as a buzzword for militant Islam: “what we commonly refer to as Wahhabism has come to be an unfortunate shorthand for a virulent strain of anti-Western cultural reactionary thinking in Saudi Arabia that is not necessarily a product of religious training.”

Mr. Lippman says the original intent of 18th century Islamic reformer Muhammad al-Wahhab was to purify the religion. “At the time, you had saint and idol worship -- which he regarded as antithetical to the fundamental believe of Islam that there is no worship of anyone expect God. That's why those who we know as Wahhabis don't refer to themselves as Wahhabis because Muhammad al-Wahhab was a man, and they don't worship men. They consider themselves 'Unitarians'. That is to say people whose commitment is to the absolute oneness with God to the exclusion of all other objects of worship.”

In the 1700s, Muhammad al-Wahhab formed a close and long-lasting relationship with the royal house of Saud -- the family that has ruled the Saudi kingdom since its creation in the 1930s

Fawaz Gergez, professor of Middle Eastern and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, says that Wahhabi doctrine is inherently rigid and intolerant of other points of view. “Wahhabism does not tolerate any kind of interpretations or re-interpretations. In many ways Wahhabism hammers a deadly nail in the ability of Islam to adjust itself to modern events in the world because it does not allow for any kind of looking at the Koran in new ways in light of new developments. It is controversial to argue of a casual link between the conservative, rigid nature of Wahhabism and the use of violence in the name of spreading Islam. I think the connection lies in that Wahhabism basically spreads and teaches a very narrow and one-sided ideological interpretation of the faith and as such, I think it empowers certain factions and groups.”

Some critics of Wahhabism go a step further to say Wahhabist doctrine incites terrorism. But Fawaz Gergez argues that it's unfair to equate Wahhabism with radical fringe terrorists, like al-Qaida. “I have been very critical of the Saudi royal family for maintaining its alliance with Wahhabism. But some western critics go too far by claiming that the royal family supports terrorism and has essentially judged them as guilty without a trial. One can not understand the debate between Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia except in the context of September 11. September 11 has done a great deal of damage not only to the image of Saudi Arabia in the West. It has brought about a great deal of legitimate criticism as well as inflated accusations against the Saudi kingdom and Wahabbism.”

Middle East analyst Thomas Lippman agrees that there's no direct connection between the religious teachings of Wahhabism and the mass murders committed by al-Qaida terrorists. But, he says, the intolerance often taught by Wahhabist clerics does pose a danger. “I have no doubt that there are substantial numbers of people in Saudi Arabia who are Sunni Arabs, products of the Saudi school and religious system who are supporters of this kind of retrograde thinking I describe as "Islamic Fascism." They are promoting a kind of close-minded view of the world that can not be reconciled with a multi-cultural society as we now have here. And when they can't reconcile their own views with those of a multicultural society, they tend to resort to violence because they have no other way of expressing themselves. It is not the same as the religious teachings that were founded in the writings of Muhammad al-Wahhab which were puritanical and exclusionary but were not violent.”

Khalid al-Dakhil is a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh and visiting fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. He believes many scholars unfairly categorize all Saudis as extreme Wahhabists. He says that within Saudi Arabia, there are many kinds of Wahhabis. “There are extremists and in the Wahhabi movement, terrorist Wahhabis, but there are also normal, moderate and liberal Wahhabis. Why don't observers just look at the Saudi society, just as a human society -- where you have the good, bad, the terrorists and the angels?”

But Professor al-Dakhil concedes that his country needs to look closely at the effects of Wahhabism and what can be done to encourage religious tolerance. “Saudi Arabia has so many problems. They need to have a comprehensive political and economic reform. They need to reform their educational system and reform their religious perspective. They need to emphasize pluralism and diversity to develop this ability to co-exist with different point of view.”

Earlier this month, the US State Department announced that religious freedom "does not exist" in Saudi Arabia, where it says the government continues to enforce what it called a strictly conservative version of Sunni Islam, or Wahhabism, while suppressing other forms of Islam and non-Muslim faiths. But Saudi authorities say they are taking steps toward reform -- most recently by replacing more than 2,000 Imams for preaching extremism.