July 15, 2007


Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and the Spread of Sunni Theofascism (Ambassador Curtin Winsor, Jr., June/July 2007, Mideast Monitor)

The United States has largely eliminated the infrastructure and operational leadership of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network over the past five years. However, its ideological offspring continue to proliferate across the globe.

American efforts to combat this contagion are hamstrung by the fact that its ideological and financial epicenter is Saudi Arabia, where an ostensibly pro-Western royal family governs through a centuries-old alliance with the fanatical Wahhabi Islamic sect. In addition to indoctrinating its own citizens with this extremist creed, the Saudi government has lavishly financed the propagation of Wahhabism throughout the world, sweeping away moderate interpretations of Islam even within the borders of the United States itself.

The Bush administration has done little to halt this ideological onslaught beyond quietly (and unsuccessfully) urging the Saudi royal family to desist. This lack of resolve is rooted in American dependence on Saudi oil production, fears of instability in the kingdom, wishful thinking about democracy promotion as an antidote to religious extremism, and preoccupation with confronting Iran.


Wahhabism is derived from the teachings of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth century religious zealot from the Arabian interior. Like most Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movements, the Wahhabis advocated the fusion of state power and religion through the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the form of government adopted by the Prophet Muhammad's successors during the age of Muslim expansion. What sets Wahhabism apart from other Sunni Islamist movements is its historical obsession with purging Sufis, Shiites, and other Muslims who do not conform to its twisted interpretation of Islamic scripture. [...]

The Question of Iran

The Bush Administration's reluctance to challenge the Saudis after 9/11 initially encountered impassioned objections from conservative and liberal commentators alike, but the outrage has tapered off as attention has became increasingly focused on Shiite Iran and its nuclear weapons program. In the view of the administration, the Iranian threat to American national security not only supercedes the threat of Sunni theofascism, but supercedes it to such a degree that a more accommodating policy toward Saudi Arabia is warranted. However, while the prospect of militant Shiite clerics in possession of nuclear weapons is understandably disconcerting to many Americans, the Iranian threat is mitigated by several important factors.

For all of the shrill and unsettling words of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his government's foreign policy is driven more by Iranian nationalism than Shiite Islamism (this is evident, for example, in Tehran's support for the predominantly Christian nation of Armenia in its dispute with Shiite Azerbaijan). This is not surprising, as Iran (known as Persia prior to the twentieth century) has existed in one form or another since biblical times, while it embraced Shiite Islam just 500 years ago. While Ahmadinejad exploits Iranian nationalism to win public support in his confrontation with the West, it can easily turn against him if he were to embark on a global adventure. Wahhabi clerics may support the Saudi royal family as a necessary evil in order to protect their global proselytizing mission, but they recognize no Saudi Arabian "nation" whose interests take precedence over their agenda. Such is not the case in Iran.

Furthermore, Shiite Islamism does not exhibit theofascist tendencies. Radical clerics in Iran have been responsible for horrendous abuses of power, but they do not regard non-Shiite Muslims as "unbelievers" who must be systematically purged - and even if they did, the fact that Shiites comprise only 10-15% of the world's Muslims would make such a project impractical. Even within the Shiite world, there is no prospect of a Wahhabi-style Iranian takeover of religious discourse because unlike the Sunnis, Shiite Islam is rigidly hierarchical. Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites gladly accept Iranian financial and military support, but they are fiercely loyal to their own clerical establishments.

An even greater fallacy is the widespread belief in Washington that a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is an asset in confronting Iran. On the contrary, coddling the Saudis makes it more difficult for the United States to deal with Iran. The Bush administration's refusal to hold Saudi leaders accountable for their incitement of Wahhabi jihadists (who have murdered far more Shiites than Americans, mostly in Iraq and Pakistan) is a source of deep resentment in the Shiite world. It is no surprise that the only two major public demonstrations against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic world after the 9/11 attacks were both organized by Shiites (in Tehran and Karachi, Pakistan).

It is interesting to note that the recent escalation of US - Iranian tensions has made the Saudis less accommodating about Iraq than ever before. Reports that the Saudi Government is threatening to openly fund and arm Sunni insurgent groups if American forces withdraw from Iraq are a case in point.[34] In effect, the Saudis are signaling to the Bush administration that they will thwart any American plan to cede control of Iraq to its Shiite-dominated, democratically-elected government, while signaling to the Sunni insurgents in Iraq that they can reject American efforts to broker a political settlement and not be left to face the consequences alone.

Iran has no history of direct aggression against its neighbors, and unlike Saddam's Sunni-dominated Iraq, they have never used weapons of mass destruction during invasions of neighbors or against their own people. The strongest argument for this approach lies with the extent that Iran craves recognition of its actual status as the historically authentic nation state in the Middle East. Iran has long aspired to be and probably will be the region's predominant Islamic regional power.

Not terribly complicated, but folks have the devil's own time grasping it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 15, 2007 8:21 PM

Yes, pretty much any criticism of Saudi Arabia is justified, but that doesn't make Iran into good guys. "Iran has no history of direct aggression against its neighbors", eh? A nice phrasing that ignores indirect aggression against neighbors (sponsoring Hezbollah against Israel and Lebanon, the Taliban against Afghanistan, and Sadr etc. against Iraq), and direct aggression against non-neighbors (the '79-'80 hostage crisis, the '94 terror bombing in Argentina, etc.).

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 16, 2007 1:20 AM

It takes an ambassador....

Zilch as far as the Iranian regime's battles against women, specifically, and its own larger population, generally. (How many Sunni mosques did they say are in Iran?)

Nothing about its attacks on Kurds over the years.

And of course, not a word about the threats to eliminate Israel. (Though, on this, of course, there's a bit of debate:
A. There were never any threats.
B. There were certain indications of threats, but they were not really meant.
C. There were threats but they were misinterpreted.
D. There were no threats and they were misinterpreted.
E. Israel deserves it anyway, so what's all the fuss about?
F. All of the above.
G. None of the above.
H. All and none of the above.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at July 16, 2007 3:33 AM

You have a very interesting blog. Please visit my blog madsufi.com, I intend to post more about the Wahhabi sect in the near future.

Posted by: MadSufi at July 16, 2007 6:44 AM

Threats? America and Israel are threatening to bomb Iran and can. If that's your measure you have a mad on for the wrong side.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 8:45 AM

The Shi'a aren't the good guys because the Wahhabi are the bad but because of their faith.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 8:46 AM

Those wonderful Shias of yours want to exterminate Israelis and are currently killing American GIs.

Posted by: Ibid at July 16, 2007 11:05 AM

"Iran has no history of direct aggression against its neighbors"

Trying to whitewash recent history in this way is evil, pure and simple. Evil.

Posted by: b at July 16, 2007 12:15 PM

The Ibid above is not the real Ibid.

Posted by: Ibid at July 16, 2007 1:06 PM

Although I might well have said that.

Posted by: Ibid at July 16, 2007 1:07 PM

Iran used chemical weapons against Iraq, both on offense and defense, between 1983 and 1988.

The chlorine truck bombs in Iraq are chemical weapons, no? Inspired by the Quds force, no?

Iran has set off bombs on almost every continent - Europe, Asia, South America, Africa. Probably 300+ American soldiers are dead because of Iranian dirty work.

The guy is correct when he says that coddling the Saudis makes dealing with Iran more difficult. A pox on both their houses.

Posted by: ratbert at July 16, 2007 2:16 PM

Iran's war with Iraq was defensive. Any means necessary was permissible against Saddam.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 3:28 PM

The US and Israel are occupying forces--of course the Shi'a want to be rid of them.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 3:29 PM

The US and Israel are occupying forces--of course the Shi'a want to be rid of them.

So the Iranians do want to be rid of the Israelis - by nuking them first chance they get. And if it means American retaliation, so what? They think mass marytrdom is a good thing.

Posted by: Etal (was wrong Ibid) at July 16, 2007 4:31 PM

No, they don't or they'd be martyrs.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2007 5:11 PM

A bit of concise wisdom from oj here. exactly--the Iranians are bluffing, because they are ultimately deterred.

Now, if deterrence fails, and they begin to believe that the price of so attacking Israel or the U.S. is other than the sea of glass, then we are at risk of war.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 17, 2007 5:56 PM

No, we aren't. They couldn't even beat Saddam, nevermind Israel.

Posted by: oj at July 17, 2007 7:23 PM