Spearhead Analysis – 16.04.2018
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is currently embracing daring changes under the tutelage of the crown prince MBS. While speaking to international investors in Riyadh back in October 2017, MBS stated that “We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world”. The recent months pronounced drastic changes such as lifting the women driving ban, allowing women to participate in sports, opening of cinemas, the Saudi National Day 2017 celebrations at Tahlia Street spoke volumes regarding the changes in power of the Saudi religious police. Several questions are being raised on how Saudi Arabia would tackle the blow back effects of these changes, from the conservative segments of society. It is believed that the ‘reformist’ prince aspires to loosen the Saudi-Wahhabi nexus. During an interview with the Washington Post in March 2018 while answering a question on the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism; the prince stated that investments in mosques and madrassas overseas were rooted in the Cold War, when allies asked Saudi Arabia to use its resources to prevent inroads in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union. Successive Saudi governments lost track of the effort, he said, and now we have to get it all back. Funding now comes largely from Saudi-based foundations rather than from the government.
MBS’s statement has dawned as a shocking revelation upon many. However, his claims may not be entirely unfounded. It is important to differentiate between, orthodox Wahabism, Saudi State infused Wahabism.
Professor Ahmad Moussalli (American University Beirut) in his paper Wahabbism, Salafism & Islamism: Who is the Enemy?, highlights disconnect between orthodox Wahhabism and Saudi State infused Wahhabism.
Wahhabism started as a theological reform movement aimed at restoring the real meaning of Tawhid and disregarding traditional practices resulting from evolution in Islamic history.
Its founder, Muhammad Bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), followed the footsteps of Ibn Taymiyya- a medival scholor. The followers of Abd-al-Wahab called themselves al-muwahhidin. Abd-al Wahhab’s views were often rejected by most sheikhs of the time. Some even judged his ‘Takfir’(accusing others of unbelief) of Muslims invalid.
Orthodox Sunni Muslims believe that they are the protagonists’ of pure Islam since the time of al-salaf. Al Salaf-Al Salih entails ways of the first three generations of Muslims- The Holy Prophet(PBUH), his companions, their successors and the successors of the successors.
However, Wahhabis believe that the orthodox Sunnis moved away from the way of al-salaf. They even accused the majority of orthodox Sunni Muslims who were living under the Ottoman caliphate and the caliphate itself of innovation and unbelief because they had been living under a political system that is unknown to al-salaf .
Thus, ‘Takfir’ has been a prominent feature of Wahhabism in its original form and today in its neo-Wahhabi form- as Professor Ahmed Moussalli notes. In conjunction with Takfir also came about concept of Jihad against own people and the caliphate- unlike the concepts of orthodox Sunnis.
Saudi State infused Wahabbism and Non State Wahhabism:
In 1902 the Wahhabi movement resurfaced when Ibn Saud returned from Kuwait and initiated a series of organized incursions to spread Wahhabism and to establish the third Saudi Wahhabi state. However, Ibn Saud later clashed with the Wahhabi Ikhwan who wanted to continue spreading Wahhabism and waging jihad against other Muslims. He stopped his incursions for the sake of establishing his rule and good international and regional relations, though he still used Wahhabism as a vehicle for legitimizing his political objectives. This policy shift caused invited criticism against Ibn Saud from within the Wahabbi circles. The core issue was Ibn Saud’s ban from continuing armed jihad. He responded to the Ikhwan’s accusations by saying that he had obtained fatwas from Wahhabi ulama. When the fatwas did not help, he shifted to a policy of confrontation in 1929. After defeating the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud turned Wahhabism into a state institution which evolved from a movement of a revolutionary jihad and theological takfiri purification to a movement of a conservative social, political, theological, and religious da‘wa within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Wahabbi clergymen operating as part of Saudi state institution differed vastly in opinions from the non-state Wahabbi base on various political matters and Saudi foreign policy choices. Such as Wahhabi objections against the Saudi government’s decision to seek the help of the Americans in the second gulf war against Iraq in 1991, issuing fatwa that allowing non-Muslims inside the Kingdom during operation Desert Storm. A certain segment of religious scholors from within Saudi Arabia began calling for Wahabbi revivalism especially during the 90’s. In a later stage, this group was divided into three wings: 1) the Sa‘d al-Faqih wing, representing the Ikhwan’s line, 2) the Muhammad al-Mas‘ari wing 3) the Osama Bin Laden wing.
According to Professor Ahmad Moussali- The war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in 1979 was the real incubation point for the contemporary breed of takfiri jihadist groups. During the Afghan war, all sorts of Islamic groups together to under the umbrella of jihad. Radical Islamist groups from many Islamic countries, including Egypt and Algeria along with Wahhabi and salafist fighters from diverse Muslim regions, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, fought alongside the Afghan mujahidin. The Arab Afghans blended together Salafism of Abdallah Azzam, the Wahhabism of Osama Bin Laden, and the radical Islamism of Ayman al-Zawahiri. These neo-salafist, neo-Wahhabi and radical Islamist ideologies in his view are a product of anti-Soviet polices.
The victory of the mujahidin against the Soviet occupation made these groups a central player, both politically and militarily- in the global arena.
Apparently, a consensus exists amongst majority of Muslim states to counter the intolerant ideologies of such groups. MBS may have been correct in stating that it is not the Saudi state that supports the so called extreme brand of Wahabbism- as such an approach could be detrimental for the authority of House of Saud. Though, his acknowledgment of the role of ‘Saudi based foundations’ is a noteworthy statement.
However, Professor Moussalli while explaining the transformation in ideologies of Wahabbi, Salafi and other Islamist movements- notes the impacts of 1979 Iranian revolution. This event happened when various Islamist movements were reshaping under a new ‘jihadist’ approach- sowing seeds for the region to be clearly divided along sectarian lines. Moussalli notes that the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, The Iraq invasion of 2003, the assassination of Hariri, Israel-Hezbollah War in 2006 and the Syrian War not only broadened the crevices for the radical armed movements to grow but they simultaneously deepened and worsened the regional sectarian divide. Moussalli adds that reportedly a number of so-called moderate Sunni Arab regimes have been quietly supporting more radical salafist elements in the region, as a counter to the perceived rise of Iranian influence.
Moreover, one of the fundamental convergence of interests amongst segments of Sunni moderates, salafists, Wahhabis, neo-salafists, and neo-Wahhabis – is the anti-Iran/anti Shia stance. The proliferation of armed Sunni networks and the government’s tolerance of them in turn makes Shiite groups respond in likeness.
It is imperative for MBS to take into account Saudi regional ties especially with Iran- if reforming unchecked spread of virulent ideologies is a true aim because these regional armed terror groups draw power from political instability/vacuums and the deepening sectarian divide.