The following is a guest post by my good friend Don Cannelonski on an issue of vital import that continues to be almost universally ignored by the Western mainstream press: the role of Saudi Arabia in the destabilisation of the entire Muslim world.
To understand the Islamic State and the flames that are currently engulfing the Middle East, one must step back in time to examine the origins of Wahhabism. Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative sect of Sunni Islam, which takes an intolerant view of other forms of Islam and other religions. It first appeared nearly three centuries ago and then later resurfaced shortly after the First World War, after which it was exported around the world thanks to the wave of black gold flowing from Saudi Arabia.
A Meeting of Extreme Minds
Our story starts in the Arabian Peninsula in the late 18th century when puritanical reformist preacher Muhammed al-Wahhab was expelled from his home town. Al-Wahhab was an Islamic scholar from the remote Nadj region of central Arabia. At the time, there were a number of reformist movements sweeping the Middle East. However, his views were so extreme that religious leaders saw him as a threat and duly excommunicated him.
Al-Wahhab despised the decadent behavior of the Ottoman nobility as well as local Bedouin Arabs whom he viewed as superstitious. He believed that all Muslims should emulate the austere lifestyle of the time of the Prophet Mohammed. He would eventually go on to declare war on Shias and Sufis, whom he did not consider to be Muslims at all. Al-Wahhab eventually found refuge with Muhammed bin Saud, the man now considered to be the founder of the first Saudi state. Saud soon realized that al-Wahhab’s radical teaching could be used to seize control of the region by bringing people into submission and fear. This allowed the Saud tribe to justify what they had always done: raid and plunder, but now in the name of jihad.
Conquered people were given a simple choice: either convert to Wahhabism or be executed. In this way, the Saud Dynasty was able to take over much of Arabia, as well as parts of modern Syria and Iraq. By the early 1800s they had seized control of the Holy Mosque at Mecca and destroyed hundreds of years of Islamic architecture, knocking down ancient shrines that they deemed to be idolatry. Perhaps al-Wahhab’s most famous doctrine was the idea of takfir, in which fellow Muslims were considered infidels for activities that challenged the authorities. He demanded that all Muslims pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader, in this case the King. Those who did not, were killed, their daughters and wives raped, and their possessions taken.
Eventually the Ottomans sent in their army to put an end to the ruthless conquest. After that, the Wahhabis retreated into the desert and remained quiet for the next hundred or so years.
Black Gold: A Gift From God
Then, at the close of WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, bin Saud’s descendent Abdul Aziz united the Bedouin tribes and used al-Wahhab as inspiration to start a religious military campaign, recapturing much of the region. Eventually, as the Middle East was being carved up by European powers, namely France and Britain, Abdul Aziz made a deal with the British who helped him establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. It became – and still is – the only country in the world to be named after one family. It was decided that the royal family would run politics and the economy while the Wahhabi clerics would dictate social policy. At that time, many North African Salafists were given refuge in the Kingdom where their fundamentalist beliefs were easily merged with Wahhabism.
In 1938 oil was discovered in the Gulf, which was seen by the Wahhabis as a gift from God. This endless flow of dollars allowed them to begin exporting their ideology throughout the Muslim world. They built a system of madrasas, or religious schools, from sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, across the Middle East to India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. These Wahhabi-funded institutions teach that all people who do not adhere to their particular views, including other Muslims, are heretics. Scholarships are often awarded to the most radical young students, the brightest of whom are brought to Saudi Arabia to study, only to later return to their respective countries and become purveyors of extremism. The Taliban, which originated from radical teaching of madrasas in Pakistan after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, is a perfect example of this.
Many charities were also set up to channel money into social programs in developing countries. The funds came not only from the royal family, but also private donors within the Kingdom, including the Bin Ladens. In many cases the money ended up in the hands of extremist groups. The Wahhabis poured their money into media, setting up numerous satellite channels to preach their message to Muslims the world over. This process accelerated when the Saudis entered into an ideological cold war with Shia Iran. In the past twenty years, Saudi Arabia has spent 87 billion dollars on over 4,000 mosques, religious schools, cultural centers, and information channels.
The Real Agenda
So what is the Saudis’ real foreign policy agenda? According to the author and renowned expert on Salafism, Samir Amghar, the ultimate goal is not so much religious as it is geopolitical:
While they see themselves as the guardians of Islamic doctrine and have always generously financed Muslim missionaries, the Saudis’ priority is not to ‘salafise’ the Muslim world. Their real aim is to consolidate their political and ideological influence by establishing a network of supporters capable of defending the kingdom’s strategic and economic interests.
This Saudi royal family’s global network of supporters came to the fore during the recent Arab Spring, which allegedly took Saudi authorities completely off guard. Threatened by a wave of liberal reform sweeping through the Middle East, the Sauds moved quickly into action. In Bahrain they forcefully squashed the protest, while in Egypt they helped to reinstall a military dictatorship. In Libya and the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq), they have chosen a different approach: funding and arming extremist militant groups, which has further destabilized an already strife-plagued region.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing and the co-opting of the Syrian revolution in 2011 have plunged the Middle East into an unending spiral of violence. Jihadists from more than 50 countries are now fighting there.
The key question is: what is driving these young men to jihad? The main reasons lie in economic and social decay. We live in a world where large transnational corporations have consolidated an unimaginable amount of power. The system drives companies and governments to put private profit over public welfare. Six years on from the economic crisis, unemployment is rife and opportunities scarce and people are fast coming to the realization that they will have to take matters into their own hands to make a living and survive.
Sowing the Seeds of Hate
At the same time, Islamophobia has increased exponentially since the 9-11 attacks. This has led to another huge problem: marginalization. In the West, everything that defines young Muslim men – their self, family, religion and cultural identity – is under attack. They face the painful realities of systemic and interpersonal racism on a daily basis. As a result, they feel more in common with distant groups abroad than with their own neighbors. Thanks to Saudi oil money, the proliferation of Wahhabism, and these men’s often limited understanding of religion, they are being recruited in large numbers by radical preachers to fight in Syria and Iraq. Enter the Islamic State – a group that is deeply Wahhabi in nature and that has distributed al-Wahhab’s writings and teachings in the areas they control. Its international flavor and use of social media is highly seductive to alienated members of the millennial generation, offering simple – albeit deeply flawed – answers and a sense of identity, belonging and purpose.
As we reach the climax of the golden age of oil Saudi Arabia continues to push its weight around in the Middle East and beyond. Through the Wahhabis, it has sown the seeds of a brutally intolerant ideology across the Muslim world. Through their schools and charitable organizations, the Saudis have indoctrinated a generation of jihadists who are prepared to defend the Kingdom’s interests with their own lives and the deaths of many others.
The ranks of these jihadists are filled with embittered young men who have fallen victim to a system built on inequality and racism. While the mainstream media pretends to be perplexed by the Islamic State’s sudden ascent to power, it is clear that the root causes lie at the heart of a corrupted system of greed and inequality. Most worrisome of all, as the world teeters closer to the brink of economic, geopolitical, social and ecological disaster, it is only logical that more young Muslim men – and even women – around the world will be drawn to extremist organizations preaching an ideology of hate and violence.