stopping the blood-thirsty beast of
Ibrahim is an international security lecturer at the University
of Chicago and an adjunct research professor at the Strategic
Studies Institute, US Army War College. In 2009 Ibrahim was
a Yale World Fellow.
West declared a war on terror more than a decade ago. Yet in
the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the subsequent
wave of police interventions in Europe, many feel less secure.
Even generally peaceful, cohesive nations of Canada and Australia
have seen gruesome attacks in recent months.
spending years developing security arrangements, investing billions
in the process, the West is less secure. From lone gunmen with
histories of mental illness killing civilians at random to the
Belgian terrorist cell discovered in February with replica police
uniforms and elaborate plans for attack, many security experts
suggest this brand of global jihad is on the rise. The security
experts do not offer a remedy. The chief of the UK Security
Service MI5 has warned that the next attack in Britain is a
matter of when, not if. The United States, whose Muslim communities
have been less susceptible to jihadist ideology, braces for
action abroad and police action at home have attended to the
symptoms of terrorism, not the cause. The cause is easy to diagnose
– the extremist ideology of Wahhabism, the puritanical,
reactionary, xenophobic sect of Sunni Islam that is the ideological
bedrock of the state of Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy, social
economic factors, alienation, identity are often invoked in
explaining the rise in radicalization. Sure enough they have
a role, but all are secondary exacerbating factors. The primary
cause is ideology. And this ideology is on the march.
began in the 18th century in what is today Saudi Arabia with
Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. In a manner similar to the religious
reformers of Christianity in Europe during the16th and 17th
centuries, al-Wahhab suggested that fellow Muslims had strayed
from the authentic teachings of Islam. He called for a return
to fundamentals. Wahhabis call themselves ‘Salafi,’
referring to the ‘pious predecessors,’ or the first
three generations of Muslims from the Hadith period. Also in
parallel to some currents of the Christian Reformation, this
return to fundamentals involved strict iconoclasm and strident
opposition to any doctrinal deviation. The movement condemned
visiting shrines and tombs of saints as polytheism, one of the
worst offences in Islam. Muslims who deviated from al-Wahhab’s
teachings were designated apostates – an offense that
according to al-Wahhab carried the death penalty. So al-Wahhab
excommunicated in one fell swoop the overwhelming majority of
the world’s Muslims, calling for all those to be converted
to his ideology or be killed in an effort to purge Islam from
what he called “unsanctioned innovations.”
converts, few but motivated, carried out military campaigns
against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering
entire villages who did not subscribe to the fundamentalist
interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith, in much the same
way that villages through Central Europe were laid to waste
in previous centuries over doctrinal disagreements among local
violence could well have remained a small footnote in history.
Local conflict among poorly defined and delimited groups is
a feature of human history. What followed put this extreme ideology
on the map for good.
reasons of political expedience, Ibn Saud, after whom modern-day
Saudi Arabia is named, at the time a minor local warlord of
the Nejdi Desert, courted Ibn Wahhab and his sizable band of
militants, co-opting him into plans to assume political control
over the Arabian Peninsula. They formed an alliance: al-Wahhab
provided religious legitimacy to the aspiring royal who in turn
ensured that Wahhabism became the official doctrine of the new
pillaging of the villages of so-called apostates and destruction
of religious sites continues to this day. Members of the Wahhabi
establishment in Saudi Arabia seriously propose destroying Mohammed’s
tomb in Mecca or destroying relics of the Prophet in the Grand
unholy alliance is the region’s single most powerful,
dark, driving historical force.
aberration in the middle of a desert could have remained a local
Arabian phenomenon, but instead spread more or less unchecked
over the last half century – a consequence of the discovery
of oil in the region. The Saudi Kingdom, founded in 1932, became
one of the most politically influential players in the world
economic system. The United States and United Kingdom back the
Saudis in regional politics and resist commenting on the regime’s
excesses, including investments that spread the extreme ideology
governments have a convenient shield. Strictly speaking, this
form of Islam is separate from the jihadist ideology motivating
much of the current wave of terrorism. Strictly speaking, Wahhabism
is isolationist and pacifist.
in truth, the shift towards a jihadist ideology requires but
a simple modification of Wahhabism: Take the Wahhabi world view
in which only puritanical fundamentalist practitioners of Islam
count as people worthy of equal moral consideration, thus ex-communicating
other Muslims and ostracizing everyone else. The result is an
extremist cult with profound commitment to a them-versus-us
world view. The descent into violence was inevitable.
history in Arabia reveals the threat. The preachers refrain
from advocating violence to avoid falling foul of the law. But
they do emphasize anti-Semitism, misogyny, interacting with
non-Muslims only in cases of necessity and ex-communicating
Muslims who do not subscribe to the conservative, isolationist
ideology. The sect lays the intellectual foundations for jihadism.
As aptly noted by Sara Khan of the UK anti-extremism organization
Inspire, these non-violent extremists lead converts to the door
of violent extremism and that door is opened by the likes of
Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or the Islamic State.
ongoing fight is not between Islam and secularism. It is a fight
between the most bigoted sects of Islam and everyone else, be
they Muslim or Western. Most of that fight unfolds in the Islamic
World with atrocities exceeding the scale of the Paris attacks
nearly every day in some Muslim country.
fight will be won or lost in the Muslim nations.
should be no doubt, what we fight against is visceral bigotry.
And most of that bigotry is bankrolled directly or indirectly
by the Wahhabi establishment in the Gulf with petrodollars.
Until the West puts a stop to the propagation of Wahhabi ideas
through charities, preachers and embassies, the bigotry and
terror will continue. No amount of resources spent on policing
the internet or surveillance at home will prevent the onslaught
of martyrs threatening the lives of ordinary citizens in the
West may not be taking this fight as seriously as it should.
King Abdulaziz al-Saud died in January. Western leaders extended
sympathy and friendship to the kingdom. President Obama cut
short a visit to India to attend the funeral after refusing
to visit Paris for Charlie Hebdo memorials. All express hopes
that Saudi Arabia would move to a more progressive future, but
none challenge the feeble progress or offers suggestions on
could be the ideal time for stern dialogue with the Saudis,
reminding that they are a prime target of the extremists. A
decade before the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon, Osama bin Laden declared war on the House of Saud
for allying with the United States in the first Gulf War.
royal family has been digging their own graves for generations,
and the alliance with Wahhabi bigotry is no longer a political
asset. The Saudis must change Arabia and stop feeding the blood-thirsty
beast of Wahhabism – for their own survival, the good
of Islam and the sake of world peace. Westerns and Muslims alike
must prepare to do whatever it takes to convince Saudis to change.
Reprinted with permission Copyright
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and the MacMillan Center at Yale