Wahhabist Islam debated in Saudi Arabia
- The following article, attributed to Mohammad Bazzi of Newsday, appeared on
page A14 of the Tuesday, June 24, 2003 edition of The Arizona Republic.
It is foolish to believe that any one faith is the source of anti-imperialism.
Many atheists have taken it up also.
SAUDIS INCH INTO DEBATE LINKING ISLAM TO VIOLENCE
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia--As a teenager, Mansour al-Nougaidan didn't think adults
went far enough in enforcing the strict form of Islam prevalent in Saudi
Arabia. So he dropped out of high school, opened his own mosque and began
issuing fatwas to root out Western corruption from Saudi society.
His fatwas, or religious decrees, targeted fast-food restaurants, clothing
shops and other symbols of foreign influence. After his supporters bombed a
video store in Riyadh in 1985, al-Nougaidan was arrested and his makeshift
mosque was shut down.
During several stints in prison, he was exposed to interpretations of Islam
that were different from the Wahhabi doctrine that has dominated Saudi Arabia
for more than 70 years. Al-Nougaidan says his prison readings turned him
into one of Wahhabism's fiercest critics.
Now a 33-year-old writer, al-Nougaidan is at the forefront of an emerging
debate in Saudi society that asks whether Wahhabism is a root cause of
militant Islamic violence. The question has taken on a new urgency after
last month's suicide bombings of foreigners' three housing compounds in
Riyadh, which killed 34 people.
Rulers Put At Risk
"Many of today's radical groups draw at least part of their religious
justifications from Wahhabi ideology," al-Nougaidan said. "For too long,
Saudi society has been exposed to only one school of religious thought.
It teaches hatred of Jews, Christians and even other Muslims who are deemed
New debate over Wahhabism--and other long-proscribed topics such as government
corruption and democratic reforms--poses a risk for this country's rulers.
Since World War II, the ruling Saud family has managed a tenuous pair of
alliances: one as an ally and major oil supplier to the United States, and
the other as a political partner with Wahhabi clerics who dominate social and
religious policy. The clerics have long vilified America and the West.
Pressures are growing from inside and outside the kingdom on the House of
Saud to limits its alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment.
But the monarchy has rested its legitimacy on its religious credentials, and
it is unclear how far the Sauds are willing to distance themselves from
Wahhabi teachings. The Sauds also face a challenge from extremists like
Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida network has been blamed for the May 12
attacks. Bin Laden, a Saudi exile whose brand of militant Islam springs
from Wahhabi roots, accuses the ruling family of straying from Islam.
Bombings Change Issue
Last month's bombings transformed the debate about religiously motivated
violence from one where Saudis had largely blamed outside forces--such as
radical Islamic groups that coalesced around the war against the Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s--into one of national introspection.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington,
in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, reformers attempted to open a
similar debate. But the discussion was drowned out by anger among many
Saudis that their entire society was being demonized because of the actions
of a few zealots. The government has long argued that Saudi militants
learned false notions about Islam outside the kingdom.
The desert kingdom is full of gleaming office towers, strip malls with
brand-name American stores and highways packed with Buicks and Chevrolets.
But modern commerce comes to a halt five times a day, with each call to
prayer. The conservative religious establishment has great authority, and
a religious police force roams the country looking for moral infractions.
Word Was Once Taboo
That there is any public discussion of Wahhabism is remarkable, because for
years it was taboo to mention the word. Many Saudis disputed that there
was even such a thing as a Wahhabi school of thought; they preferred to call
it true Islam.
Wahhabism seeks to return Islam to its "pure" form, as it was practiced by the
prophet Muhammad and his followers in seventh-century Arabia. The movement
was founded by an 18th-century preacher, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who
argued that Islam should be based on a literal interpretation of only two
sources: the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and the Sunnah, the collection of
the prophet's sayings and actions.
The movement does not look kindly on non-Muslims. In its most extreme form,
Wahhabi doctrine supports permanent jihad or "holy war" to spread its austere
interpretation of the faith.
Such anti-Western views aid bin Laden and other extremists in finding
recruits, reformers argue, because they can convince young men that their
faith condones violence against non-Muslims.
"By constantly describing the United States as a devil, or Satan or an
infidel, this could make our young people hate America and want to take
violent action against it," said Mojeb Zahrani, a comparative literature
professor at King Saud University in Riyadh and a leading reformer. "This
rhetoric has an effect on people, especially impressionable young people.
Those who spew this kind of rhetoric must take responsibility for it."