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Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and the spread of Sunni theofascism - Part 1

By Curtin Winsor, Jr. - posted Monday, 16 July 2007

The United States has largely eliminated the infrastructure and operational leadership of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network over the past five years. However, its ideological offspring continue to proliferate across the globe.

American efforts to combat this contagion are hamstrung by the fact that its ideological and financial epicentre is Saudi Arabia, where an ostensibly pro-Western royal family governs through a centuries-old alliance with the fanatical Wahhabi Islamic sect. In addition to indoctrinating its own citizens with this extremist creed, the Saudi Government has lavishly financed the propagation of Wahhabism throughout the world, sweeping away moderate interpretations of Islam even within the borders of the United States itself.

The Bush Administration has done little to halt this ideological onslaught beyond quietly (and unsuccessfully) urging the Saudi royal family to desist. This lack of resolve is rooted in American dependence on Saudi oil production, fears of instability in the kingdom, wishful thinking about democracy promotion as an antidote to religious extremism, and preoccupation with confronting Iran.



Wahhabism is derived from the teachings of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century religious zealot from the Arabian interior. Like most Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movements, the Wahhabis advocated the fusion of state power and religion through the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the form of government adopted by the Prophet Mohammed's successors during the age of Muslim expansion. What sets Wahhabism apart from other Sunni Islamist movements is its historical obsession with purging Sufis, Shiites, and other Muslims who do not conform to its twisted interpretation of Islamic scripture.

In 1744, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab forged an historic alliance with the Al-Saud clan and sanctified its drive to vanquish its rivals. In return, the Al-Saud supported campaigns by Wahhabi zealots to cleanse the land of "unbelievers". In 1801, Saudi-Wahhabi warriors crossed into present day Iraq and sacked the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing more than 4,000 people. After the Saudis conquered Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, they destroyed such "idolatrous" shrines as the Jannat al-Baqi cemetery, where four of the 12 Shiite imams were buried (on the grounds that grave markers are bida'a, or objectionable innovations).

In return for endorsing the royal family's authority in political, security, and economic spheres after the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Wahhabi clerics were granted control over state religious and educational institutions and allowed to enforce their rigid interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).

Wahhabism was largely confined to the Arabian Peninsula until the 1960s, when the Saudi monarchy gave refuge to radical members of the Muslim Brotherhood fleeing persecution in Nasser's Egypt. A cross-fertilisation of sorts occurred between the atavistic, but isolated, Wahhabi creed of the Saudi religious establishment and the Salafi jihadist teachings of Sayyid Qutb, who denounced secular Arab rulers as unbelievers and legitimate targets of holy war (jihad). "It was the synthesis of the twain-Wahhabi social and cultural conservatism, and Qutbist political radicalism- that produced the militant variety of Wahhabist political Islam that eventually (produced) al-Qaeda." (Mohammed Ayoob, "Political Islam: Image and Reality," World Policy Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall 2004.)

The terms Islamofascism and theofascism have been frequently misused by Westerners to refer to virtually all forms of radical Islamism, but they are fitting appellations for Wahhabism today. Fascism is "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion." (See Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.)

The sect's rejection of individual liberties, disparagement and reduction of women's rights and status, disregard for the intrinsic value of human life, and encouragement of violence against unbelievers, are unparalleled among Islamic fundamentalist movements.


Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey has used the term "Sunni theocratic totalitarianism", a term that highlights both the movement's "will to power" over the most minute aspects of Muslim daily life and its global ambitions. He also notes that its adherents do not raise the banner of Islam in pursuit of specific national, political, or territorial gains. Al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri has sharply rebuked the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for participating in national elections.

During the 1970s, Wahhabi clerics encouraged the spread of this revolutionary and atavistic ideological synthesis into Saudi universities and mosques, because it was seen as a barrier to the threat of cultural Westernisation and spread of corruption that accompanied the 1970s oil boom. Consequently, the royal family and their religious establishment looked for a cause with which to deflect the growing zealotry from Wahhabist theofascism, a danger highlighted by the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by heavily armed Islamic Studies students in 1979. The diversion that the royal family seized upon was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Saudis financed a large-scale program of assistance to the Afghan mujahideen, in co-ordination with the Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI) and the CIA, while funding radicalised madrassas to disseminate neo-Wahhabi ideology and literature in the sprawling Afghan refugee camps of Pakistan. They also dispatched thousands of volunteer jihadis from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to fight alongside the mujahideen.

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This article, with extensive references was first published in Mideast Monitor Volume 2 No I, June/July 2007.

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About the Author

Curtin Winsor, Jr. is a former US ambassador to Costa Rica (1983-1985). He was Special Emissary to the Middle East at the outset of the Reagan administration. He is chairman and owner of the American Chemical Services Company of Marmet, WV and serves on the boards of several public policy organizations, including the William H. Donner Foundation, the Atlas Foundation for Economic Research, the Media Research Center and the Hudson Institute.

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