Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and terror: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Islamophobia,terrorism — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

John Wight channeling the Henry Jackson Society

In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in London, you could hardly tell the difference between what Douglas Murray, the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s ultraright tabloid “The Sun” and John Wight’s article in CounterPunch. Murray is the author of the 2005 Neoconservatism: Why We Need It and a brand-new book titled The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam that can best be described as even more nativist than the National Front. As for the Henry Jackson Society, this is a think-tank that became infamous for its all-out support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Murray’s article is patented “they hate us because of  our freedom”, a genre that blossomed fulsomely after 9/11:

At Wahhabi schools — known as madrasas — in the UK paid for by the Saudis, students are taught to hate the modern liberal West.

They are taught to despise and look down on us and our freedoms. The same message is taught at Wahhabi mosques across the world. The Saudis pay for the buildings and appoint the clerics.

Today across Europe there are thousands of such institutions of education and religion which exist because they are paid for by the Saudis.

We should have stopped the Saudis being allowed to spread their hatred here a long time ago. But a combination of greed for oil and fear of false charges of “Islamophobia” have stopped any British government to date from confronting this.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of where this disgusting ideology can lead. Perhaps now we can finally face it down. For all our sakes.

Here is John Wight doing an impeccable Douglas Murray impersonation in his June 6th article titled “London Terror Attack: It’s Time to Confront Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia”:

It is time for an honest conversation about Wahhabism, specifically the part this Saudi-sponsored ideology plays in radicalizing young Muslims both across the Arab and Muslim world and in the West, where in the UK people are dealing with the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack in which innocent civilians were butchered and injured, this time in London.

The most concerning development in recent years, however, vis-à-vis Saudi influence in the West, is the extent to which Riyadh has been funding the building of mosques as a way of promoting its ultra-conservative and puritanical interpretation of Islam, one completely incompatible with the 21st century.

In 2015 Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came out in public and accused the Saudis of funding mosques in which extremism is regularly promoted. In an interview with the German magazine Bild am Sonntag, Mr Gabriel said, “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

We can assume that Wight must also endorse Gabriel’s January 19, 2017 call: “Salafist mosques must be banned, communities dissolved, and the preachers should be expelled as soon as possible.” What better way for public security to be guaranteed than to dissolve communities? One can imagine both Murray and Wight leading a throng of torch-bearing Christians determined to send the riffraff back to where they came from.

You might have noticed above that Gabriel refers to Salafist and Wahhabist mosques without bothering to distinguish between the two belief systems. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, it is worth making a distinction. Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and activist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived through nearly the entire 18th century. It was similar in spirit to Hasidism for Jews and Calvinism for Christians, a literalist interpretation of sacred texts that demanded an austere lifestyle. Ironically, despite its medieval character, Wahhabism was seen as a “reform” movement in Islam that opposed the de facto sainthood of its leaders that involved pilgrimages to their tombs, etc. Long before the state of Saudi Arabia was created, the Saudi princes adopted Wahhabism as their official religion and imposed its rules on its subjects after taking power in 1932.

Salafism emerged at around the same time as Wahhabism and derives its name from advocating a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). Scholars tend to believe that Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, just as the Lubavitchers are a sect within Hasidism. For most Salafists, their religion is just a way of living a “holy” life. If Hasidism requires men to wear black suits and side-curls to enter heaven, Salafism has its own strictures such as forbidding tobacco, alcohol, playing cards and listening to music.

In its early years, Wahhabism was just as bloodthirsty as ISIS. In 1801, the Wahhabis sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq and acting as infidel-purging takfiri left 4,000 Shia Muslims dead. Of course, the Christians were no slouches themselves. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Orthodox Christians were persecuted across Eastern Europe. Polish Catholics killed up to 80,000 of their fellow Christians who did not follow the Pope. So cruel was the crusade against the infidels that the leader of the Orthodox church declared: “God perpetuate the empire of the Turks for ever and ever! For they take their impost, and enter no account of religion, be their subjects Christians or Nazarenes, Jews or Samaritians; whereas these accursed Poles were not content with taxes and tithes from the brethren of Christ…”

In the 20th century, religious wars became far less common. Mostly, they were about defending the “nation”, an act that cost far more lives even if the justifications were based on Enlightenment or even Marxist values. When it came to Saudi Arabia going to war to defend Wahhabist values, you’ll find little evidence of that. The wars had nothing to do with eradicating tobacco and everything to do with keeping the oil wells flowing such as when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. With little interest in the  Sunni faith it shared with the Iraqi rulers, some of whom have reappeared as ISIS members, Saudi Arabia supported George Bush’s war to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

If you do a search on “Wahhabi” and “terror” in Lexis-Nexis, you will get links to 997 articles. All but 9 of them are dated after September 11th, 2001 and of those 9, not a single one refers to Saudi-sponsored terrorism. Three do refer to Russia’s justification for its war on the Chechens but I will cover that matter in a separate post dealing with Oliver Stone’s moronic interview with Vladimir Putin.

When 15 of the 19 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi citizens, the left—especially Michael Moore—jumped to the conclusion that the royal family was behind 9/11. This conspiracy theory was not driven by a class analysis of the Saudi state and its deep tentacles in the imperialist system both economically and militarily but by a kind of amalgam between the Wahhabi beliefs of the men who carried out the attack and their patron Osama bin-Laden.

What complicates this interpretation is the fact that despite their Saudi citizenship, they were from Yemenite tribes whose territory was seized by Saudi Arabia in a 1934 war having more to do with state formation than religion. Like the Mexicans who lived in the southern part of Texas, the people of this region resented the powerful nation that had absorbed it through military conquest. Although most of the story is reported in Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I wrote about last year in a piece titled “Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?”, you can find other references that bear this analysis out such as an article that appeared in the March 3, 2002 Boston Globe. Despite the title (“Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers”), the article makes clear that 12 of the 15 Saudis were from the southwest region of Asir that manifested “deep tribal affiliations” and suffered “economic dis-enfranchisement”. Reporter Charles M. Sennott describes life in Saudi Arabia’s hinterlands, which have very little to do with the opulence of those who ruled over it no matter the shared Wahhabi faith:

The path to understanding this culture which bore the hijackers – almost none of whom had any deep links to Islamic militant movements much before Sept. 11 – lies somewhere along this road. On maps it is ”Highway 15,” but to Saudis it is commonly known as ‘”The Road of Death.’” Stretching south from the lowlands around Mecca into Taif and the woodlands of Al Baha province, and then climbing up to the mountains of Asir, it is considered the most dangerous road in a kingdom which officials say has an extraordinarily high rate of fatal car crashes. Highway 15 alone claims hundreds of lives every year, and thus its name.

It has become known as a strip of asphalt where disaffected, middle-class Saudi youth climb into large American-manufactured Buicks and Chevrolets and race at speeds over 120 miles per hour. They say it is a way to vent their rage against the limited economic opportunities in the kingdom as well as the crushing boredom and confining strictures of life under Saudi puritanism.

Interestingly enough, the pilot of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon was exactly the sort of Saudi youth who was trying to lift himself up out of this morass. Hani Hanjour was 29 years old when he took part in the 9/11 attack but his flying skills originally had nothing to do with jihad. He was a frustrated young Saudi who trained to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline but could not land a job. Sennott reports:

His frustration at failing to get the job he dreamed of derailed him for nearly a year, his friends said. He spent hours online at a family-owned Internet cafe. He read voraciously about piloting, and increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers.

Al Watan, a newspaper in the Asir region, was far more probing than the mainstream press in its investigative reports on the local youth who joined the 9/11 plotters. It is to Sennott’s credit to cite Al Watan’s reporting and how bin Laden tapped into the deep-seated resentments of the Asiri tribes that were as ready to make war on Riyadh as they were on Washington, even more so:

US and Saudi officials say they believe bin Laden exploited the Saudis, paying particular attention to their tribal backgrounds, and convincing them that they would be making their tribes proud in the jihad against America. On the videotape, bin Laden pointedly boasts of the names of the tribes, repeating the name Alshehri seven times, and also the Alghamdi and Alhazmi tribes on several occasions.

Bin Laden knew that selecting these families from the southwest would send a message to the monarchy and the ”Naj’dis” – elitist families from the center of the country who savor their connections to royalty and tend to look down upon the southwest’s tribal culture as primitive. US and Saudi officials suggest that bin Laden was letting that elite know he had deep support in the southwest for his jihad against the United States. But more ominously for the palace, the sources add, bin Laden was letting it know he had support for his oft-stated desire to dethrone the House of Saud, because of what he sees as its corruption and its treasonous ties to the United States.

Not only did bin Laden disavow the Saudi rulers politically, he had built a network called al-Qaeda based on the religious and political beliefs of a man that built a movement regarded as their mortal enemy. With all the facile attempts to blame Wahhabism for the 9/11 attacks, there is overwhelming evidence that it was inspired by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian poet and Islamist theorist who led the Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s. Qutb was devoted to the idea that Muslims had to launch a jihad against its enemies. When he came to study in the USA in 1948, he was repelled by the churches that he saw as “entertainment centers and sexual playgrounds.” I guess he had the foresight to anticipate Jimmy Swaggart et al.

He returned to Egypt in 1951 where he joined the Brotherhood. In 1954, he and his comrades were rounded up by Nasser just as has happened under General al-Sisi more recently. Qutb spent 10 years in prison. After being released in 1964, he was rearrested in 1965 after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser. He was tortured before being brought to trial and then hanged on August 29, 1966.

Qutb was above all political. He was for Salafist values but that was not enough. If you were a devout Muslim, you had struggle against the corrupt oil sheikhs and nationalist dictators, either Wahhabist like the Saudi royal family or secular like Nasser or al-Assad. In an article on Qutb that appeared in the October 31, 2001 Guardian, Robert Irwin described bin Laden’s attraction to Qutb’s idea of jihad:

In the context of that global programme, the destruction of the twin towers, spectacular atrocity though it was, is merely a by-blow in al-Qaida’s current campaign. Neither the US nor Israel is Bin Laden’s primary target – rather it is Bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia. The corrupt and repressive royal house, like the Mongol Ilkhanate of the 14th century, is damned as a Jahili scandal. Therefore, al-Qaida’s primary task is to liberate the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from their rule. Though the current policy of the princes of the Arabian peninsula seems to be to sit on their hands and hope that al-Qaida and its allies will pick on someone else first, it is unlikely that they will be so lucky.

As for the spate of ISIS-inspired or sanctioned terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA, there is little connection to al-Qaeda, which has not been known in recent years for the sort of atavistic attacks on civilians that occurred on 9/11. In 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any ties to ISIS and its franchise in Syria has had numerous armed confrontations with the group, especially in Qalamoun where dozens of ISIS members were arrested or killed in May, 2015.

This leaves us with the question of ISIS’s ideological roots. It combines Qutb’s apocalyptic worldview with Salafist orthodoxy but its wanton terrorist attacks on civilians has little to do with Islamist groups in the Middle East except for Hamas that used to set off bombs in Israel restaurants and buses in an ill-conceived response to Israeli state terror.

To understand ISIS, you simply have to extrapolate its tactics in Iraq during the American occupation when suicide bombers were targeting Shia mosques on a regular basis. These methods were associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who sought to turn a war against American occupation into a Sunni-Shia war. It was his barbarian beheadings, car bombs and other forms of terror that made it impossible for anti-imperialist fighters to build a united front. It was al-Zarqawi’s ruthless occupation of Sunni cities following the same pattern as ISIS today in Mosul and Raqqa that made it possible for the American military to persuade tribal leaders to join General David Petraeus’s Anbar Awakening.

Like many of the low-lives who have stepped forward to knife people out for an evening stroll or to drive vans into their midst, al-Zarqawi had nothing in common with a figure like Sayyid Qutb. In a profile for Atlantic magazine, Mary Anne Weaver reported on his youthful days in Jordan:

Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan.

Although al-Zarqawi left all this behind when he arrived in Afghanistan to join the jihad, there is little evidence that he ever became much of a Wahhabist except to follow the same austere strictures as everyone else. Mostly his ambition was to be a fighter and in this he  succeeded. Based on his military prowess and leadership abilities, he was able to put together one of the more formidable anti-occupation militias called al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. This group undoubtedly spawned ISIS as should be clear from this incident reported by Weaver:

Al-Zarqawi courted chaos so that Iraq would provide him another failed state to operate in after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He became best known for his videotaped beheadings. One after the other they appeared on jihadist Web sites, always the same. In the background was the trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi’s newest group: al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. In the foreground, a blindfolded hostage, kneeling and pleading for his life, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit resembling those worn by the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Zarqawi’s first victim was a Pennsylvania engineer named Nicholas Berg. In the video, five hooded men, dressed in black, stand behind Berg. After a recitation, one of the men pulls a long knife from his shirt, steps forward, and slices off Berg’s head.

What accounts for such madness? Is it Wahhabism or is it the brutality that became so universal in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of which did not take the form of beheadings but Russian and American air power that dropped high explosives on lightly armed fighters and civilians with impunity? In Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, he explains Pol Pot as the logical outcome of dropping more tons of explosives in Indochina than the total dropped by the combined air forces during WWII:

This bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing…and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

Social science might look for patterns in these sorts of genocidal spasms that coincide with an all-out war when civilized norms go by the wayside. That might explain the Khmer Rouge as well as setting off a bomb while teenaged girls are leaving an Ariana Grande concert.

Appendix:

Just about 10 years ago, CounterPunch published an article titled “The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/10/27/the-wahhabis-are-coming-the-wahhabis-are-coming/) that holds up rather well. It makes a rather good retort to John Wight, who has succumbed to the Islamophobia the author was diagnosing. Here are the more salient points but I urge you to read the entire article.

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.

6 Comments »

  1. Great piece in response to Wight’s moronic writing on the subject. When I first read his piece, I likewise wasn’t sure if I’m reading some Zionist propagandist, a right-wing nut writing for Heritage Foundation or some Trump supporter writing copy for Fox News.

    Thank you Louis for providing a wealth of great information and thank you for the ‘appendix’, in itself a great rebuttal of Wight’s kind of misplace alarmism, and the piece is from 2007! Louis, you have done a great service for sanity and truth.

    Comment by Reza — June 19, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

  2. Brilliant, thank you for this. Corrected many of my own misconceptions.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — June 20, 2017 @ 4:58 am

  3. Wight has always had right-wing tendencies. At one point, although he seems to have changed his mind again after the recent election, he repudiated Corbyn, leading to a pfft with his former BFF, Andy Newman. His adulation for Putin is of course fascist in tendency. He continues to throw the word “socialism” around, but has zero credibility at this point as a socialist.

    Expect a full-on conversion to Duginism at any moment.

    That said, Wight’s predictable idiocy has here provided a foil to some admirable scholarship.

    Louis clearly demonstrates that the ritualized equation of saudis, wahhabis, al qaeda,and ISIS is a lie.

    Anyone scorched by the terroristic fires of Calvinism fears and loathes religion, especially religion of the cruel paternalistic variety; but you don’t have to admire Wahhabism and Salafism to accept the facts Louis states.

    All it requires is the ability to think–something John Wight has always rejected on principle.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 20, 2017 @ 9:56 am

  4. Not sure what others here think, but I’d say John Wight could have had a very successful (maybe even illustrious) career as the double for William Hurt.

    Comment by Reza — June 20, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

  5. Is there not a question here whether Saudi terrorism is being understated? And thinking of Syria, which due to Republican terrorism, is a lot less unwretched – can we really be hopeful as Yessim al-haj Saleh may still be?

    Comment by Lawrence — June 23, 2017 @ 11:11 pm

  6. The latest news from Saudi Arabia:

    Suicide Bomber Blows Himself Up Near Grand Mosque in Mecca
    (http://time.com/4831625/mecca-attack-bombing-grand-mosque-ramadan/?xid=gonewsedit)

    Comment by Reza — June 24, 2017 @ 6:46 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: