November 1, 2007


Wahhabism: A deadly scripture: King Abdullah's Saudi regime spends billions of pounds each year promoting Wahhabism, one of fundamentalist Islam's most extreme movements. Much of it funds children's education in British faith schools and mosques. Should we be worried? (Paul Vallely, 01 November 2007, Independent)

Yahya Birt, an academic who is director of The City Circle, a networking body of young Muslim professionals, estimates "Saudi spending on religious causes abroad as between $2bn [£960m] and $3bn per year since 1975 (comparing favourably with what was the annual Soviet propaganda budget of $1bn), which has been spent on 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centres and dozens of Muslim academies and schools".

More than that they have flooded the Islamic book market with cheap well-produced Wahhabi literature whose print runs, Birt says, "can be five to 10 times that of any other British-based sectarian publication, aggressively targeted for a global English-speaking audience." This has had the effect of forcing non-Wahhabi publishers across the Muslim world to close. It has put out of business smaller bookshops catering for a more mainstream Muslim market.

The Saudis have also reserved for foreigners 85 per cent of the places at the Islamic University of Medina, which boasts of having more than 5,000 students from 139 countries. Despite the fact that British students gained the reputation in Medina of being unreliable, lazy, and prone to dropping-out, there have so far been hundreds of British graduates who have returned to the UK espousing the rigid Saudi worldview.

The strategy has in one way backfired on the Saudis. They accelerated their aggressive missionary work – targeting China and Russia as well as the UK – in reaction to the activities of Iran in the 1980s which, after its theocratic revolution, was pumping out propaganda across the globe. The Saudis had already been pump-priming Islamic terrorists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, at the behest of the Americans and funding among other things the schools in Pakistan that gave rise to the radicalism of the Taliban.

But the Saudis lost control of this new global Wahhabism. During the First Gulf War in 1991 there were splits among Wahhabis, both in Saudi Arabia and outside, over whether it was right to allow infidel American troops to protect the land of Islam's two holiest shrines, at Mecca and Medina. Anti-Saudi Wahhabis, such as the infamous hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza in Britain pronounced that the Saudi king had broken his divine covenant with God. It was therefore the duty of scholars to charge him with unbelief and incite the masses to rise against him in rebellion. Groups such as the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir capitalised on an anti-Saudi sentiment which spread throughout the Wahhabi community.

The focus of violent Islamic radicalism has shifted from Wahhabis in Saudi to anti-Saudi Wahabis in Iraq and other conflict zones where jihadists have learnt the heady lesson that if you are brutal and narrow-minded enough you can defeat the most powerful army the world has ever seen.

Since 9/11 the Saudis have begun to row back on their funding of fundamentalism abroad, according to Mehmood Naqshbandi, the Muslim advisor to the City of London police. Too late. The damage has been done.

The Saudis do not call themselves Wahhabis. That is largely a derogatory term applied by their opponents. Many Saudi religious leaders insist on calling themselves just Muslims, extending the implication that Muslims who do not share their particular interpretation of Islam are not proper Muslims at all. But some Saudis describe themselves as salafis. And it is salafism that has taken root among many second- and third-generation British Muslims.

To understand why you need to know a bit of theology. Salaf is the Arabic word for a pious ancestor. It refers to the generation of Muslims who personally knew the Prophet Muhammad, and those who knew that generation. Muslims regard any religious figure in the first three generations of Islam as a salaf. The term was first used in the 20th century by reformers in Egypt. But it has now been appropriated by the Wahhabists.

"Not all Muslims approve," says Dr Philip Lewis, who is the Bishop of Bradford's adviser on Islam. "Some say that the Wahhabi have hijacked a very venerable term for a very reactionary agenda to give them a bogus respectability."

Salafism comes from a way of looking at Muslim texts which date back to no later than that third generation after Mohamed. It disregards the four main traditions of Islamic law and practice which developed over the centuries since then. Rather like the Protestant reformers in Christianity it speaks of going back to the roots. Abdal Hakim Murad, who lectures in Islamic Studies at Cambridge explains: "Just as the Protestants wanted to get rid of the saints and shrines, the Aristotle and Aquinas of medieval theology, so the salafis declare as 'unbelief' most of the practices which are normative to Islam in the Indian subcontinent." Salafism is known for its scriptural rigidity, intense literalism, deep intolerance and rejection of traditional Muslim scholarship.

So why is this attractive to modern British Muslims? Because they are searching for an identity but rejecting the factional ethnic Indian subcontinental politics of their parents, says Mehmood Naqshbandi, the author of the City of London's guide to Islam for non-Muslims. "They are having an identity crisis." They have no patience with the old tribal rivalries of their parents' generation. They have weak links with the Indian subcontinent. They are unhappy with rural imams imported from Pakistan who do not understand the culture of sex, drugs, rock'*'roll, and politics that surrounds them. And they have been educated in a system that trains them to challenge and to research on their own.

"They are ripe for salafism, which claims to have the most transparent route back to the sources of the Prophet's time. And salafism's antagonism to mainstream orthodoxy makes it attractive to youth," he adds. They need not bother with the long tradition of Islam. The 7/7 suicide bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were salafis. So was the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. From there they provided easy prey to the al-Qa'ida notion that anyone who isn't a salafi is the enemy.

Hostile commentators such as Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam, dismiss salafism as a mere synonym for Wahhabism. It is cover, he says, just as in a previous age "euro-communist" became a palatable euphemism for Stalinist. Abdal Hakim Murad disagrees. "No one in the Muslim world denies that the theology preferred by terrorists is salafi/Wahhabi," he says. "But if most terrorists are salafis, most salafis are not terrorists. After the Iranian revolution the safe generalisation was the Shia were more dangerous [than the Sunni] because they had a martyrdom complex. You don't hear that said much today."

Naqshbandi agrees. "There's nothing in salafi principles which implies any relationship with political violence, it is just that if you are inclined that way salafism is a very attractive wrapper for you."

On occasion, the real enemy hoves into view.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2007 7:17 AM

Aristotle is a medieval representative of Christianity? Who knew?

Posted by: ratbert at November 1, 2007 3:36 PM

Nice title, BTW.

Posted by: ratbert at November 1, 2007 3:37 PM