Wahhabism at the heart of the controversy

Within the narrow margin of freedom of expression in the Saudi press, whose scope may vary and/or completely disappear according to internal or external political circumstances, writers are often forced to adapt to the general atmosphere when choosing topics to be critiqued or analysed. This is how they avoid harassment and avoid being suspended or prevented from writing.

Touching upon the subject was a red line which, if crossed, individuals and institutions would be subjected to an investigation or suspension.The topic of Wahhabism is a case in point. Its criticism in the media was problematic in the past. Touching upon the subject was a red line which, if crossed, individuals and institutions would be subjected to an investigation or suspension. This was the case with writer and academic Khalid al-Dakhil, who was banned from writing in the UAE’s Al-Ittihad newspaper and the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat, after he published a series of articles on Wahhabism. Journalist Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid was also suspended for two days from Al-Arabiya news channel after it broadcast a documentary on the subject. The same happened with Saudi Al-Watan newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, Jamal Khashoggi, who was fired for authorizing the publication of an article that criticized Wahhabism.
Recently, broadcast media and newspapers have seen a wave of public analysis and criticism of Wahhabism. This raises questions about the significance of such a direction at this time, especially as it comes in conjunction with Saudi Arabia’s participation in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The treatment of Wahhabism varied among writers. Some were keen to place Salafi jihadist movements in their historical and political context, and did not just base their analyses on religious explanations, like Khalid al-Dakhil who wrote a series of articles on the issue. In a piece titled, “The Reassessment of Wahhabism Is Overdue,” Dakhil says that the most important result of the emergence of ISIS is the apparent ideological revaluation of Wahhabi literature, adding that such reviews must be persistent and thorough. He criticised most of these reviews, saying they were heavy on religious overtones and disregarded the historical framework and sociopolitical facts.

Other writers attempted to create a distinction between the Saudi ideology and that of ISIS, or denied the existence of a link between Wahhabism and the extremist group. In an article titled, “The Saudis Can Crush ISIS” written by Saoud al-Sarhan and Nawaf Obaid, the authors maintained that Saudi Arabia was not the source of ISIS, but rather the group’s main target since its path towards the caliphate passes through the two holy sites, Mecca and the prophet’s grave in Medina. They expressly denied that ISIS followed the Salafist or Wahhabi doctrine, saying that the group adopts the doctrine of the Kharijism, which completely contradicts Wahhabism.

In the same vein, Abdullah bin Bajad al-Otaibi wrote an article titled, “ISIS between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood,” in which he aimed to prove that ISIS is not associated with Wahhabism but the Muslim Brotherhood. Such articles could be classified as an extension of the media campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist organization by the Saudi regime early this year.

Other writers indicated that Wahhabism has become a burden on the Saudi state and called for disassociating from the doctrine. In his article “Salafism on its deathbed,” Hamza al-Salem describes Wahhabism as “extremely backwards in relation to all aspects of human progress,” and the Saudi state as “keeping up with modern civilization.” He added that the discrepancy between the body and soul of the state is the reason for its survival, unlike the demise of the Taliban. He called for abandoning the soul of the state – Wahhabism – since it has negatively affected the makeup of Saudi society, and has thus become a burden on the state while it used to be its [source of] pride and strength. Other writers like Abdul-Salam al-Wayel echoed the same thought in his article, “We and Wahhabism: Between Gratitude and Criticism.”

“The biggest threat today comes from groups who misunderstood the doctrine of the forefathers,” – Sheikh Hatem al-AwniSheikh Hatem al-Awni, a teacher at Um al-Qura University and former member of the Shura Council, spoke about what he described as “fanaticism in Wahhabi thought” on Liqa al-Jumua on Rotana television. He made a link between the bloodshed committed by ISIS and the [Wahhabi] book al-Durar al-Sunniya. “The biggest threat today comes from groups who misunderstood the doctrine of the forefathers,” he said.
The criticism and reassessment of Wahhabism is not new. The movement has been subject to a lot of internal and external criticisms in the past. However, this new public criticism of Wahhabism does not merely touch on its inherent fanaticism and extremism, but discusses various other aspects like its relationship to the state, and is being made directly rather than under the veil of the “critique of the Sahwa [Awakening]”. Most importantly, it comes in the midst of important regional and international realignments.

Wahhabi thought went through several stages and saw several transformations. It would be a mistake to treat it as a single homogenous current with a coherent ideology in relation to its view of the state and the form of the system of government. Today’s Wahhabism is influenced by various trends and ideas, especially with the introduction of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and its integration with Salafism, the product of which was currents such as al-Sourouriya and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia’s authorization of a US presence on its territories during the Gulf War played a major and substantial role in highlighting such differences and discrepancies within the Islamist environment. The al-Jami current, named after Sheikh Mohammed Aman al-Jami, focused on the importance of total submission to the guardian, and warned that its opposition could lead to “strife” and lawlessness. The Sahwa current, which is a mix between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, adopted a discourse of opposition to state policies. For example, one of its prominent figures issued an “advisory memo,” whose main demands were reviving the role of religious scholars in public life as purveyors of justice, fighting corruption, and ensuring the equitable redistribution of the country’s resources among citizens.

Several Sahwa intellectuals announced the establishment of the “Committee to Protect Legitimate Rights” to defend “human rights” endorsed by Islamic law. This put them in confrontation with the regime and its traditional Salafi religious institutions, which see that their mission is to focus on religious reform and leave governance issues to politicians or guardians, while adopting the method of “confidential advice to the ruler” on the basis of “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.”

Wahhabism is an important source of legitimacy for the Saudi regime, which has spent lavish amounts of money to promote the ideology around the world, by building Salafi schools, community centers, and mosques,On the other hand, jihadi Salafist groups adopt the idea of taking up arms and engaging in jihad as a tool for change. They believe that it revives the true method of the forefathers (or more precisely, the correct version of Wahhabism) through the revival of the rite of jihad for the sake of God. A main characteristic of this current is that it rejects all forms of existing regimes. It engages in jihad against the authorities in Islamic states, on the grounds of apostasy or lack of legitimacy, in addition to fighting the infidels or occupiers. They also reject the current cultural makeup of society, describing it as jahili [pre-Islamic]. This radical creed, which sees armed struggle as the only path for change, is what sets jihadi Salafism apart from other types of Salafi ideology.
Wahhabism is an important source of legitimacy for the Saudi regime, which has spent lavish amounts of money to promote the ideology around the world, by building Salafi schools, community centers, and mosques, in addition to funding an extensive program to help the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the USSR, in coordination with the Pakistani intelligence and the CIA.

Saudi Arabia is today perceived – especially by the US and the West – as a breeder and center of financial and ideological support for so-called Wahhabi “terrorism.”

Thus, whenever the question of jihadi Salafi groups – like al-Qaeda or ISIS – is raised, Saudi is blamed for funding “terrorism” and finds itself compelled to refute and respond to such accusations. This view of Wahhabism, which is synonymous with “terrorism,” is fairly new and appeared after the September 11 attacks. Prior to that, most Western research centers spoke about Wahhabism as a movement of unification and awakening with a puritan character, though they acknowledged its extremism without seeing it as a threat to them or their interests. The reason may have been that the West trusted the ability of their allies, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, to control the movement and prevent its adherents from harming their interests.

After September 11, western politicians and writers came to view Wahhabism as a promoter of hate speech, rather than a unification movement. This was followed by a series of demands and pressures on Saudi Arabia to reform its institutions and educational curricula. Saudi responded to these pressures and accusations in various ways. A large number of adherents to jihadi ideology were arrested, especially after the bombings in Riyadh in 2003. It also launched educational reforms (especially in the Islamic education subjects), in addition to issuing decisions related to women, such as providing them with identification cards, appointing them in senior state positions and the Shura Council, and allowing them to practice law.

The opening of the mixed King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) carried several connotations, mainly restricting and restraining the authority of the religious institution. A case in point was King Abdullah’s decision to dismiss Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shathri from the Senior Scholars Committee after he called for segregation between sexes at KAUST.

The Saudi state does not seem intent on abandoning or replacing Wahhabism – at least not in the short term – because it represents an important source of legitimacy.This is on the internal front. Externally, Saudi is trying to show that a divorce has happened between the regime and Wahhabism, and present itself to the world as a model of liberalism, which sponsors dialogue between religions. King Abdullah even took up the name of the “King of Humanity,” in addition to the “Servant of the Two Holy Sites.” However, ending the funding of jihadi groups (publically) contradicts with the actual support being provided to jihadi groups in Syria, for example. The state’s foreign policy statements about the divorce between the political authorities and Wahhabism is inconsistent with news about its assistance to Salafi political groups in some Arab countries.
More importantly, a main component of the anti-ISIS coalition was based on what US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf described as “moderate Islamic voices,” represented by al-Azhar and the Saudi religious establishment, which aims to delegitimize ISISI’ ideology. This pits the traditional religious establishment against ISIS, taking into account that the interest in spreading Wahhabism around the world did not stop. On the ideological level, the official establishment solicited the support of western researchers to carry out studies, in an attempt to present a different image of Wahhabism in the West and exonerate it from the charge of terrorism.

The question remains, could the political and religious establishments be separated on the domestic level in the Kingdom? To provide an answer, it is important to understand the link between the two establishments and what Wahhabism means for the state. Inside the state, Wahhabism is embodied in actual institutions, such as the judiciary, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the Fatwa Committee, and the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, in addition to the Islamic University in Medina, Imam Mohammed bin Saud University, and others. These institutions are flexible and able to continuously reinvent themselves. If the state wished to get rid of them, it would have to transform them all, along with their army of hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats.

It is not true that Wahhabism and its institutions are a burden on the state. To the contrary, they represent an important source of legitimacy, and the state can resort to them whenever there is a need. When the “Arab Spring” erupted in several Arab countries, the authorities turned to the fatwas of the Senior Scholars Committee, which prohibited demonstrations and warned against disobeying the “guardian.” This came along with a royal decision that banned criticism of the mufti or the Senior Scholars Committee. But the use of these organizations to suppress and crush opposition movements is even more serious. Any type of political opposition will face a trial based on the values of the Wahhabi institution, which are founded on the principle of obeying the “guardian.” Thus, if the state abandons these institutions, it will be abandoning important weapons used as a source of legitimacy and to suppress opponents.

But if Wahhabism is so important for the state, why has criticism of it reached this level? This is where the ISIS challenge comes into play, as it requires that Wahhabism be emptied of its original content, which could be a threat to the state or its image, while it is being used by ISIS to delegitimize Arab governments.

In conclusion, the Saudi state does not seem intent on abandoning or replacing Wahhabism – at least not in the short term – because it represents an important source of legitimacy. Traditional Wahhabism can also be used to suppress and fight the radical direction within jihadi Wahhabism, through the support of state religious institutions like the Senior Scholars Committee. What is happening is mere cosmetic changes, in addition to an attempt to find a Wahhabism with a greater ability to fulfill the requirements of today’s reality.


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