By Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr
September 30, 2014
Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Islam is again in the sights of critics who say it underpins the extremist ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis). But in the country itself, the open soul-searching about the role of Wahhabi Islam following the 9/11 attacks on the US is noticeably absent.
Some of the features of Isis ideology, such as its hatred of Shia Muslims and application of strict punishments such as limb amputations, are shared with the purist Salafi thought that defines Saudi Wahhabism. Isis has explicitly referenced early Wahhabi teachers, such as Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, to justify its destruction of Shia shrines and Christian churches as it cuts a swath through Iraq and Syria. Thousands of Saudi nationals have been recruited to its ranks.
Yet, in contrast to the tacit official encouragement of more liberal voices after 9/11, any debate within Saudi Arabia over the role of its official creed in fostering the group’s extremism has been timid and largely confined to social media.
“Unfortunately, we are still in denial,” journalist Jamal Khashoggi said. Writing in Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat in June, he said: “It is time we asked 'what went wrong' and let’s search within ourselves.”
The Saudi authorities have been quick to condemn Isis. But, according to observers, they are anxious to avoid a potentially destabilising examination of common ideological links between the extremist group and the Saudi religious school whose support underpins the legitimacy of the royal family.
Wahhabism shapes most aspects of Saudi society. Following 9/11, Riyadh pledged to reform the country’s education system to encourage tolerance. But critics overseas complain that textbooks and the syllabus remain prejudiced against anyone who does not follow the creed.
Recent events have further hampered debate. “The window has closed since the Arab spring because the government has tightened press laws and signalled it would not tolerate discussion or questioning of the basis of the legitimacy of the state,” said Gregory Gause, a Saudi specialist at Texas A & M University.
In the present climate, any criticism of contemporary Wahhabism’s impact on Isis sparks a defensive reaction, stifling open discussion, say observers. Instead, the regime has ordered the religious establishment to condemn the extremists, aiming thereby to insulate the creed from wholesale analysis.
The king “has laid down the line” by instructing religious scholars to denounce the group, said Mr Gause. Abdelulaziz al-Qassim, a Saudi political analyst, said the authorities had called on the clerical establishment to “condemn this phenomenon of Isis and mobilise against it” rather than undergo any revisions that would distance them from extremism.
But Turki al-Hamad, a well-known Saudi liberal, argues that the clerics are ill-suited to the task. Writing in the London-based al-Arab newspaper recently, he said: “How can [our scholars] respond [to] Isis . . . and all the other parasites which have sprung up on the margin of Islam, when its germs grew among us and within our homes and it was us who nurtured its thought and rhetoric until it grew?”
Mr Qassim and others point to a tendency within the Saudi establishment to blame the rise of Isis on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group founded in Egypt, whose form of gradualist Islamist politics based on elections poses a direct challenge to the Saudi system. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supported the overthrow of the Brotherhood in Egypt last year, and Riyadh banned the organisation earlier this year.
Abdullah bin Bijad al-Otaibi, a columnist with the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, argued recently that Isis owes more to the Brotherhood than to Wahhabi teaching, which is rooted in Salafist tradition, or the following of early Islamic practice.
Mr Otaibi argues that violent groups in Egypt that predated al-Qaeda, such as al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, were “a pure Brotherhood product”. He says they were inspired by the writings of Sayyed Qutb, a radical Brotherhood theoretician who taught that modern Islamic societies lived in a state of pre-Islamic ignorance of religion. Mr Qutub’s call for jihad to overthrow secular governments has informed both extremist and more mainstream Islamist ideology.
But Isis’s ultra-violence against religious minorities is also viewed by political analysts and critics as an amplification of Wahhabi hatred for the Shia branch of Islam.
Anti-Shia discrimination remains widespread in Saudi Arabia, despite the king’s efforts over the past decade to foster more tolerant interpretations of Islam and to appoint some local Shia to the country’s advisory council.
Saudi clerics such as Nasser al-Omar, who has more than a million Twitter followers, have distanced themselves from the extremists of Isis. But in his writing Mr Omar, like many others, displays his contempt for the Shia, referring to them. as “the rejectionists” and “enemies of religion and the nation”.
Mr Qassim said anti-Shia sentiment had risen in Saudi Arabia since Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, backed the Assad regime in Damascus and sent fighters into Syria to quell what many observers see as a Sunni uprising.
This sentiment has been compounded as other Shia movements across the region make waves, including in Bahrain, where low-level unrest has continued since Shia-led protests were quelled in 2011, and Yemen, where Houthi rebels control the capital Sana’a, while Baghdad’s government remains dominated by Shia.
For this reason, according to Mr Qassim, the march of Isis has not been entirely unwelcome in some sections of Saudi society. Clerics have asserted that Iran’s influence in Syria and Iraq raised the hopes of Gulf Shia for greater empowerment. Now, he noted, some say the emergence of Isis has cut these hopes “down to size”.