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Defeating Wahabbism By: Stephen Schwartz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 25, 2002


Faculty, students, visitors, and honored guests from Central Asia, thank you for the opportunity to appear here today.

I have been invited here as the author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror (Doubleday). In this book, I discuss the origins of the Islamic sect of Wahhabism, its involvement with the royal authorities of Saudi Arabia, and the entanglement of both the sect and the kingdom with the global organization and financing of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

However, I will begin by outlining my personal experience and expertise in this area. I am Senior Policy Analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, and the director of an Islam and Democracy project now in formation there.

I do not come to this debate from an academic or government background. I have flattered myself in saying that I learned about Wahhabism the way George Orwell learned about Stalinism. Orwell did not go to Moscow; he went to Barcelona, where he witnessed the nefarious activities of the Soviet secret police. I did not go to Riyadh to study Wahhabism; I witnessed the attempt of Wahhabi-Saudi agents to take over Balkan Islam, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania. I first heard the term Wahhabi in a Yugoslav context more than 10 years ago.

I had, in fact, originally gone to the Balkans, beginning in 1990 - that is, before the actual outbreak of fighting in the country - with the double interest of journalistic reporting and researching the remnants of Jewish life there. I then began my encounter with Balkan Islam - in an interfaith manner, by working with an Albanian Catholic institute, a uniquely useful forum for the study of Balkan religious life. Balkan Judaism has been greatly influenced by Balkan Islam - a topic on which I have another book soon to come out. But with the outbreak of the horrific aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina, I learned that Bosnian Muslims, who were isolated and desperate, and who needed any friends they could get, were nonetheless extremely suspicious of the Saudis and Wahhabis. They view Wahhabi-Saudi Islam as a mortal threat to their own traditional, tolerant, and spiritual form of conservative Sunni Islam.

After much study, interviewing, and publishing on these topics, I went to the Balkans to live in 1999. With the end of the Kosovo intervention, I worked in that region, most notably, on the project of a permanent Kosovo interreligious council bringing together Albanian and Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and a very small Jewish remnant. In post-Dayton Bosnia, the Wahhabi-Saudis had been viewed coldly by the local Muslims, but in Kosovo the Albanian Muslims were much more hostile to them, and it was among Albanians, from 1999 to 2001 - only weeks before September 11, 2001 - that I witnessed, and had the honor of participating in, the resistance of the local Muslims to Saudi-Wahhabi efforts at control and indoctrination.

As I have come back to the United States, Balkan Muslim intellectuals with whom I am close have called on me to expose Wahhabi-Saudi religious colonialism to the Western public. This profound charge became even more serious after September 11th.

On the intellectual and professional journey that led to writing this book, I learned that hostility to Wahhabi extremism is prevalent throughout the Muslim world. In researching the my book, I drew on informants, most of them confidential, that included Saudi subjects, West Africans, Moroccans, Algerians, Egyptians, Somalis, Chechens, Ingushes, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Indian Muslims, and Malaysians as well as Balkan and American Muslims.

I have had especially fruitful discussions with prominent Chechen and Ingush Muslims, who have described to me how Wahhabism, in the form of the Saudi adventurer who called himself Khattab, was injected into, and effectively split and undermined, the righteous struggle of the Chechen nation. I had, in fact, long been a sympathizer of the Chechens. I vividly remember how, as a high school student of the Russian language, 40 years ago, I read in a Soviet newspaper about the return of Chechens and Ingushes to their native lands. Later, I became very close to Robert Conquest, the Western scholar who deserves high honors for his exposure of Stalin's genocidal assault on small Caucasian Muslim nations, as well as on the Kalmyks, during the second world war.

I have also had extensive discussions with Uzbek intellectuals about the Wahhabi threat to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, and Chechnya, we see repetition of the pattern of Wahhabi-Saudi infiltration. The Wahhabi-Saudi agents who introduce their doctrines, financing, recruitment, and incitement to terror into these countries have the same aim in all of them: to utilize ordinary Muslims for the advancement of their fundamentalist and extremist agenda.

Wahhabi-Saudi attempts to exploit the grievances, and often the atrocious victimization, of other Muslims, have led to their interference in Afghanistan, where they seized control of the anti-Russian struggle, and then fostered the dictatorship of the Taliban; in Israel, where the Saudi regime directly funds and guides Hamas; in Kashmir, where efforts of local moderates to resolve the status of the region have been thwarted by Wahhabi aggression; and in Algeria, where political tensions between the old socialist establishment and new Islamic movements were manipulated to launch a bloody civil war; all this in addition to the countries previously mentioned. In addition, Wahhabi-Saudi agents have sought to launch entirely new fronts for their ideological war, in Somalia, in Indonesia, and in the Philippines. And finally, Wahhabi-influenced extremist movements continue to contest for authority in such countries as Nigeria and, of course, the all-important example of a state driven to permanent crisis by Wahhabi influence: Pakistan.

Condemnation of Wahhabi extremism does not mean condemnation of those who are its exploited victims, such as the Chechens. I reject the promiscuous characterization of the Chechen armed struggle we find in Western media, where all Chechens are labeled either Islamist, when they are not, or are granted status as "Chechen nationalists or separatists," when some of them should be called "Wahhabis" or "Islamists," or are written off as terrorists. Nobody can doubt that the Chechens are justified in defending themselves, as they have for more than two centuries, against Russian imperialism.

Nobody can doubt that the struggle for survival of the Bosnian Muslims was entirely necessary and righteous.

Nobody can doubt that the Albanian nation, which is Muslim in its majority, was correct in defending itself against Slav Orthodox imperialism.

But in all three of these struggles, the defenders of Islam and the Chechen, Bosnian, and Albanian peoples based their commitment on their Sufi - and, among Albanians, their Shi'a - traditions. These cultural legacies are totally opposed to the pretensions of the Wahhabi-Saudi conspiracy to unification of world Islam under their control. Chechens, Bosnians, and Albanians are all condemned by Wahhabism to death for the alleged crime of "grave-worship," i.e. honoring and praying for intercession by Islamic saints.

To return to the Orwell parallel, in the Spanish civil war the Soviet Union was the most fearsome enemy of the indigenous radical traditions represented by the anarchist movement. In the Caucasian and Balkan conflicts the Wahhabi-Saudis have proven to be the worst enemies of local Islam.

This Islam is sometimes mischaracterized by Western commentators as "folk Islam." However, it covers a mighty big "folk." Participants in so-called "folk Islam" include, by far, the majority of the world's Muslims, found in West Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well as in the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In Indonesia, the adherents of so-called "folk" Islam, organized in groups like Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyya, with 70 million members, have mobilized against Wahhabi infiltration. I believe the many millions of Indonesian traditional Muslims will wipe out the extremist menace in that country. These millions were not pleased by the Bali bombing horror.

The artificial distinction between "normative" and "folk" Islam should be reversed, for it is "folk" Islam that constitutes the global Islamic mainstream, while the "normative" Islam promoted by the Wahhabi-Saudi conspiracy represents, according to many Islamic scholars, a cruel and criminal deviation.

These issues are especially troublesome in the case of Uzbekistan, because Islamist extremists in that country have been taken up by the Western human rights industry as alleged victims of post-Communist oppression. Criticism of the Uzbek authorities - as well as of anti-Wahhabi Muslims in the Caucasus - has rested on the charge that the term "Wahhabism" is misused by ex-Communist governments to hide a campaign against ordinary Muslim believers. In the case of Uzbekistan under President Islam Karimov, the government is, indeed, a new, young, transitional democracy, whose institutions remain weak. I cannot claim to provide a full endorsement of the Uzbek regime, without going there. Obviously, as in any country, there have been abuses.

However, I note that much of the discussion of Uzbekistan and the claims of Islamic figures in that country to being victims of repression, rests on extremely vague terminology. For example, the latest U.S. State Department report on human rights abuses around the world was released on March 4. It includes numerous allegations against Uzbekistan, many involving the government's struggle to suppress Hizb-ut-Tahrir - a clandestine subversive movement originating in Arab countries. This is a battle in which the United States should probably be cheering Karimov on, rather than condemning him.

Getting it right in the fight against terrorism is all about making distinctions, not blurring them. In the Uzbek case, the State Department, parroting the Western human rights profession, accuses President Karimov of seeing evil Arab subversives where there are merely pious Muslims - the classic example of the supposed misuse of the term "Wahhabi." But the rights monitors suffer from the opposite blindness. They see only innocent, faithful Muslims where there are, in fact, terrorists. The issue is not religious devotion, but radicalism. The human rights lobby refuses to recognize the difference between traditional Uzbek Muslims and Arab-subsidized infiltrators whose "piety" is a cover for terrorist recruitment. This latter group is referred to in the State Department's Uzbek country report as "independent" and "particularly devout" Muslims. And the U.S. government takes the position that they are being abused by the government of Uzbekistan for "their religious beliefs."

I have spent quite a time hashing out these issues here in Washington, and after much discussion and introspection I arrived at the following position: the Uzbek authorities claim they have only repressed Wahhabis; those arrested claim they are not Wahhabis. So the question appeared to be open, and I will admit that my sympathies were more with the Uzbek authorities than with the alleged Wahhabis.

However, this controversy was clarified for me when I read an article by a certain Abdummanob Polat, an Uzbek human rights expert, titled "Can Uzbekistan Build Democracy and Civil Society?" This article appeared in a volume published right here at CACI, titled Civil Society in Central Asia, in 1999. In this text, Mr. Polat also adopts a vague, and in my view, a devious and deceptive vocabulary, when he discusses "independent" Islam in Uzbekistan.

Mr. Polat refers to the traditional Islam of the Uzbeks, an Islam based on Sufi spirituality, the four recognized schools of Sunni jurisprudence, and various customs Wahhabis despise, as "promoting loyalty to the existing rulers." This is the same claim implied by human rights monitors who allege that certain Muslims are persecuted by the Uzbek authorities because they are "independent" of the state. Mr. Polat uses this phrase in an obvious attempt to suggest that there is something extraordinary about Muslims being exhorted to loyalty to the existing political authority, and that this must reflect a holdover from the Communist regime, which demanded such subordination.

Loyalty to the existing rulers is not a Communist invention, or an Uzbek novelty, or any other kind of innovation in Islam. It is an essential principle of Islam embodied in the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, few Westerners realize this. Of course, jihad against the Soviet state, which attempted to replace Islam with atheism, was another matter. But the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, regardless of its failings, has not and does not seek to replace Islam with unbelief. Nobody seriously claims that Karimov is an enemy of Islam - only that he is an opponent of Wahhabi and other extremists, and seeks to foster a traditional, indigenous Sufi Islam that is loyal to the government. President Karimov's administration has built many medresas and mosques, and has rehabilitated the tombs of numerous saints. Uzbekistan, as the birthplace of Imam Bukhari and other great Islamic thinkers, has every right to demand a place as a leader among the Islamic countries. To repeat, and to emphasize, loyalty to such a government is an essential principle of the Sunnah, and those who agitate against such loyalty, and who proclaim their independence, i.e. their disobedience of the legal authorities, are guilty of fitnah or subversion, the ultimate Islamic sin.

Mr. Polat also disparages Uzbek traditional Islam by referring to it as "officially permitted by the government for decades," as if Central Asian traditional Islam were a puppet of the Communists. This is absurd. The former government "permitted" this form of Islam because it was the faith of the vast majority of the population, and action to completely suppress it, such as had occurred in the early years of the Bolshevik regime, had become impossible.

Mr. Polat also states that "this form of Islam… to some extent incorporated expensive ceremonies and rites, especially regarding funerals and weddings." Here we have the suggestion that traditional funeral and wedding customs had been introduced into Islam from the environment, and were "un-Islamic." This is pure Wahhabism. Funeral observances and elaborate weddings have been part of Islam all over the world since the time of Muhammad.

In summary, Mr. Polat states "Islam in Uzbekistan has acquired certain national and local features… local accretions" that, according to Mr. Polat, "changed [the orthodox] interpretation over the centuries." Once again, here is the paradigm that falsely describes local customs as intrusions into Islam. Worst of all, Mr. Polat designates the activity of the opponents of Uzbek traditional Islam as "indigenous attempts to understand and study real Islam." This presents the situation as if a group of Uzbeks who found it hard to pay for their weddings decided one fine day that their problem was that Islam was adulterated, and that they wouldn't have to pay so much for weddings if they followed a purified Islam. This is a very popular paradigm with Westerners: they believe Muslims take to fundamentalism in response to the alleged corruption of traditional shaykhs and Islamic healers. I am very sorry, but for a universe of reasons, I do not believe this. People do not simply come up with these ideas. People believe these things because of politics and propaganda. Even Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Saudi death cult, did not simply conclude one day that Islam was corrupted; his dispensation was based on a critique of Ottoman conditions. His attack on traditional Islam was political; that of the so-called dissident Muslims in Uzbekistan is political, and it is not based on legitimate grievances.

Any scheme that tries to set off "real Islam" or "pure Islam" or whatever they want to call it against traditional Islam - any scheme that describes traditional Muslims, whether they are Moroccan, Kosovar, Uzbek, or Indonesian - any ideology that labels existing, traditional Islam as "unbelief," "superstition," or "grave worship" - whether it emanates from the mosques of Riyadh or from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or from the acolytes of Mawdudi in Pakistan, or from Hezb-ut-Tahrir -- presents an extremist threat to the lives of ordinary Muslims.

The human rights activists and other defenders of these so-called "independent" Muslims do not grasp this. They do not comprehend that preaching against traditional Uzbek Islam as "superstition" or "grave worship" or "corruption" represents a serious breach of civility and a challenge to public order, and cannot be viewed, in American terms, as protected religious advocacy

In the U.S., when certain Christians advocate terrorism against abortion clinics, nobody views such discourse as protected religious speech. It is seen as extremist incitement and dealt with as such.

In Northern Ireland, when Protestant fanatics label Catholics non-Christian - exactly as the so-called "independent" Muslims in Uzbekistan label the adherents of traditional Islam - the result is that Protestants throw bricks at Catholic schoolchildren. Such preaching is not seen, especially in the United Kingdom, as protected religious speech. It is treated as terrorist incitement.

Even in Israel, advocacy of the physical liquidation of Arabs and Muslims by Jewish ultra-radicals is treated as terrorist incitement as punished by the state.

Uzbekistan faces the same problem. Those who claim to represent pure religion, and who denounce, demonize, and target other believers - ordinary people going about their lives - the mother keeping a home, the peasant working his land, the worker seeking betterment - cannot be seen as mere advocates of an alternative vision of Islam. They seek to subvert authority, to divide families and communities, and to incite terrorism.

Western societies have long recognized that in the field of religion, civility and order are more important than an abstract right of advocacy. When Rev. Jerry Falwell attacked the personality of the Prophet Muhammad, he was subject to serious criticism and forced to apologize to the Muslim believers, not simply because of political correctness, but because every intelligent and loyal American prizes interfaith civility, especially with those Muslims who join in defending America and democracy.

What, to summarize, is the goal of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance? To destroy the traditional Islam present from Bosnia-Hercegovina to South Africa, and from Morocco to the Philippines, and to replace it with their extremist, ultra-rigid, and Puritanical version of Islam.

They do this through indoctrination, infiltration, and financial subsidies. Wahhabi-Saudi penetration of local Islamic communities may begin with the construction of Saudi-funded mosques, with Saudi-trained imams assigned to them. A reportage in Newsweek states that "at least 250 out of some 1,200 [recognized mosques] nationwide" - that is, in the U.S. - function under direct control of the North American Islamic Trust, a Wahhabi-Saudi body. Further reflecting Wahhabi-Saudi ideological influence over American Islam, Newsweek points out a really extraordinary fact: "An April 2001 survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that 69 percent of Muslims in America say it is 'absolutely fundamental' or 'very important' to have Salafi teachings at their mosques." "Salafi" is a cover term for Wahhabi - comparable to "socialist" for Soviet-controlled Communists.

"Wahhabization" may also begin with the distribution of literature - more properly designated as Wahhabi hate propaganda. I recently helped produce a report on the distribution of Wahhabi hate literature on the soil of the U.S., by institutions controlled by the Saudi government, online at www.defenddemocracy.org.

The Wahhabis have sought to extirpate Shi'a Islam, and to abolish the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. They despise, to a point of homicidal rage, a number of traditional Islamic customs. More broadly, these include

  • the entire body of Islamic spirituality known as Sufism or tasawwuf;

     

     

  • intercessory prayer [Tawassul (using means), tashaffu` (using intercession), and istighatha (asking help)];

     

     

  • celebration of the birthday of the Prophet (mawlid);

     

     

  • recitation of two Quranic suras, Fatiha and Ya Sin, for the dead;

     

     

  • honoring of saints, with erection, maintenance, and visiting of tombs for holy men;

     

     

  • the establishment and preservation of grave markers and cemeteries, which are frequent targets of Wahhabi desecration.

I have recently received complaints from Kurdish Muslims in Northern Iraq, warning that Wahhabi infiltrators, aligned with al-Qaida, have begun demolishing traditional tombs in that area. Destruction of tombs and cemeteries is often, in fact, the first sign of Wahhabi activity. Early in 1998, just before the eruption of armed conflict in Kosovo, I was informed by Albanian Muslim clerics that Wahhabis had commenced a campaign of vandalizing gravemarkers in the Albanian districts of Macedonia. While attention to this problem was deflected by the Kosovo intervention, it remains a major issue for Albanian Muslims. In Kosovo, 250 mosques - half the total in the country - were seriously vandalized or destroyed by the Serbs. Representatives of relief agencies based in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states promised to rebuild these holy structures, but in numerous cases their so-called restoration begin with the uprooting of Ottoman cemeteries. These acts have outraged Albanian Muslims and led to the barring of the Saudis and other Gulf citizens from reconstruction projects in the embattled territory.

I personally observed the failure of Wahhabi-Saudi infiltrators to take control of Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania. This profoundly cynical effort was motivated by the belief that the terrible martyrdom undergone by the Bosnian Muslims in particular, would induce these victims of an attempted genocide to turn away from their European roots and open, tolerant, Ottoman Islamic traditions, and to embrace Wahhabi extremism. I do not think any Islamic community in the world can be said to have suffered, in the last half century, a comparable agony to that of the Bosnians: tens of thousands of women and girls raped, a quarter of a million dead, 40 percent of mosques leveled, more than half a million people dispossessed of their homes. Yet the Bosnian believers, their eyes focused clearly and unwaveringly on their own Sunni legacy as well as their distinctive traditions, refused to submit to Saudi control.

Still, the repudiation of Saudi-Wahhabi pretensions by the Kosovar Muslims has been even more dramatic. Put simply, the entire Albanian nation is acutely conscious that it owes the survival of 2.5 million Kosovars to action by the democratic West, by the Christian leaders of the U.S., and to the noble activities of the Jewish religious and civic leaders in the West, who demanded action to stop the Serbian terror. In Kosovo, the Wahhabi-Saudi fake jihad has failed completely.

While the main immediate aim of Wahhabism is to capture and guide the global Islamic community, its doctrines are also deeply suffused with hatred of the other religions. This is something different from anti-Jewish propaganda disseminated by Arab media in their campaign against Israel. It is also something different from the claim of ultimate revelation and authority in traditional Islam. Anti-Jewish agitators among the Arabs remain chiefly motivated by political issues: their discourse expresses resentment over the Middle East crisis and a need for pretexts to divert their restive citizens from local complaints. While traditional Islam draws a firm line between itself and the earlier monotheism of the Jews and Christians, it does not command the Muslims to despise and murder Jews and Christians (notwithstanding Islamophobic polemics to the contrary.)

Wahhabism is as different from "ordinary" anti-Israeli ideology, or even from most of so-called "militant" Islam, as Nazism was from the mentality of the German military in the first world war, as different as Stalinist Communism was from the radical socialism of a generation before. It is a nihilistic, violent, Islamofascist movement that seeks not only to impose conformity on the world's Muslims, and to completely wipe out Shi'a Islam, but also to attack the world's Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and other worshippers.

The extensions of the Wahhabi conspiracy - centered in such organizations as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, both headquartered in Saudi Arabia - are visible throughout the world, wherever Muslims are found, including on U.S. soil.

The failure of Western political and intellectual leaders to adequately understand the internal crisis in Islam, and the conflict between tradition and extremism, led to obliviousness in the face of the terror revealed on September 11th. At this point, certain measures have become imperative. One of them is for the U.S. to demand a full, transparent accounting of Saudi involvement in September 11th from the Saudi authorities. Another is to demand that the Saudi government, like the Soviet government and various right-wing dictatorships before it, entirely cut off its subsidies to the extremist Wahhabi ideological establishment. Third and most important, is to protect, support, and otherwise encourage Muslims opposed to Wahhabism to develop their own community institutions and to produce a new, articulate network of authoritative advocates who can bring the truth about traditional Islam to the Western public. The last is the mission of the Islam and Democracy program created by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.


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