Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars propagating an extremist picture of Islam religion, as it founded many religious centers in the countries around the world in a bid to spread Wahhabi thoughts. Wahhabism is known as the original source for rise of many takfiri and terrorist groups around the globe.
Asking seven Questions and answering them, this article seeks to give a clear picture of Wahhabism and the Saudi goals behind spreading it worldwide.
1. What is Wahhabism?
Wahhabism was founded in 18th century by some Muslims who sought to return to Quranic literalism. It is considered as one of the most strict Islamic branches. Wahhabism’s founder, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a preacher and scholar, asked the local leader Muhammad bin Saud to give him support. Co-operating, these two spread out the Wahhabi thoughts across the Arabian Peninsula. Later, Abd al-Wahhabi’s daughter married to the son of Muhamad bin Saud. This meant that all of Al Saud dynasty is from Abd al-Wahhab’s generation. Wahhabism decrees that men and women should be separate in the society, and the women should be fully dressed when they appear in public. Followers of other Islamic branches like Shiites and moderate Sunnis, who do not obey the Wahhabis’ religious guidelines and orders are considered infidels by them. Wahhabis have set some penalties for such offenses as sacrilege and apostasy which include lashing, stoning and decapitating.
2. How has Wahhabism become strong in Saudi Arabia?
In 1979 a very significant event took place. In that year the radical Wahhabi clerics have thought that Al Saud, the ruling family, was stained with Western moral degeneracy, therefore, they mobilized hundreds of fighters and dispatched them to the city of Mecca to seize Masjid al-Haram. Feeling a great danger, the ruling family cancelled modernist measures and restored the former social conditions to pacify the deployed fighters. Along with shutting down the cinemas and music stores, the Saudi officials granted the religious police larger powers to monitor the offenses and implement punishments for them. According to the former diplomat John Borgus, the occupation of Masjid al-Haram has pushed back Saudi Arabia 30 years behind, diverting the kingdom from the social development course it embarked on. The Saudi ruling family made a big deal with the Wahhabi clerics, being committed that as long as the Wahhabi extremists kept their armed activities out of the Saudi territories, Riyadh would provide the Wahhabism’s propagation campaign with financial support. The agreement has caused the radical Islamism to replace the moderate versions of Islam religion in many countries, and in fact it was after this time that many of terror groups started to grow.
3. Why is Saudi Arabia promoting Wahhabi thought?
Saudi Arabia has been canvassing Wahhabism to counter Shiite Islam and to ensure that Muslim world is Sunni primarily. The conventional Sunni-Shiite dispute in Iraq, Yemen and generally in the whole West Asia region has grown more blatant, bitter and violent in recent years. Now that Iran has agreed to limit its nuclear program’s activities in exchange for lifting the international economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia is feeling a danger that Tehran could improve its conditions and emerge more aggressive in spreading Shiite thought and promoting Shiite-run revolutions. There are a lot of diplomatic documents, dating back to 2010-2015, released by WikiLeaks website recently showing that Saudi Arabia has been highly concerned about Iran’s actions and influence. Monitoring the Iranian religious and cultural activities, the Saudi government’s organizations have made attempts to block or prevent access to Iran-backed media in order to stop the Shiite Iran’s influence. The Saudi diplomats watch closely the Iranian moves anywhere in the world, from Tajikistan, which holds historical-Persian bonds with Iran, to China where the fettered Uyghur Muslim minority is taking more religious dispositions day by day.
4. How are Saudis promoting their religious vision?
Saudis invest largely in building the mosques, schools, hawzas, (or religious schools), and Sunni cultural centers across the Muslim world. According to Indian intelligence agencies, only in India between 2011 and 2013 time frame, 25,000 Saudi clerics have visited the country, bringing with them $250 million to spend on mosques and universities projects and hold seminars. “We are facing thousands of active organizations and preachers all under Saudis’ influence”, said Osama Hassan, a scholar of Islamic sciences. “All these institutes and preachers are promoting a Saudi vision of Sunni Islam the extremist and fundamentalist type of which is known as Wahhabism or Salafism”, Hassan added.
5. Where in the world has Wahhabism gained ground?
Almost anywhere in the world, excluding the places where Iran has influence, the Wahhabi thought has found grounds to grow. In the 1980s the Saudi Arabia’s money and militants were dispatched to Afghanistan to back the mujahedeen who were fighting the Soviet Union which invaded the country, a move later gave rise to the Taliban movement and ultimately Al-Qaeda terrorist group. Riyadh’s support to the Bosnia’s Muslims in the period’s armed conflicts, which led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, has led into arrival of Wahhabism to Europe. In the same decade, the Saudi money has helped radicalizing the Chechenya’s Muslims. In a cable revealed by WikiLeaks, Hilary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, has admitted that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. Additionally, most of Al-Qaeda members are Saudis, among them were Osama bin Laden and 15 out of 19 of plane hijackers who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.
6. Where does ISIS stand in the picture?
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) considers itself purer than the Saudi regime, however, its Sunni fundamentalist doctrine has roots in Wahhabism. Bob Graham, former Democrat senator of California, who has asked for declassification of the part of 9/11 commission report which is about the Saudi Arabia’s connection to the plane hijackers, has said that “ISIS is a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support”. Actually, Graham says that ISIS represents a form of Wahhabi ideology that Saudis cannot curb. “Who serves as fuel for ISIS? Our youths. To stop ISIS, you have to dry out this ideology at its source”, said Turki al-Ahmed, the Saudi critic dissident writer, writing about his country.
7. How influential are Saudi’s Madaris (religious schools)?
During the decade-long Afghans’ fighting against the Soviet forces, the Saudi princes, by their financial support, helped an explosive growth of Wahhabi schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These schools were located in rural communities where there was no other source of education. The schools started to teach the militarized version of Islam, as they told their students that they had on shoulder a divine duty of fighting the infidels. The outcomes of the Madaris were radical students who ultimately founded Taliban movement or joined Al-Qaeda. Presently, many of madaris in Pakistan admit students from Nigeria, Indonesia Malaysia and elsewhere, making them return home radicalized. Vali Reza Nasr, a political scientist in John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said that the ideology promoted by the schools was highly influential in shaping the Muslim world’s minds. If the public schools did not educate people and this duty is undertaken by schools which taught fanaticism, then it would take a brain surgeon to measure their influence on the people’s mind, added Professor Nasr.