The Magazine

Saudi Friends, Saudi Foes

Is our Arab ally part of the problem?

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE EXTRAORDINARY ACT of destruction seen on September 11 had a noteworthy harbinger in Islamic history. In 1925, Ibn Saud, founder of the present Saudi Arabian dynasty, ordered the wholesale destruction of the sacred tombs, graveyards, and mosques in Mecca and Medina. These are, of course, the two holy cities of Islam, whose sanctity the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and other Islamist extremists ostensibly seek to protect from the defiling presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

Saud’s armed supporters, in a frenzy of iconoclasm, first leveled Jannat al-Baqi, the "heavenly orchard" in Medina, where one of the original associates of Muhammad was buried under the prophet’s supervision. Other relatives and thousands of early companions of the prophet were also interred at the site, as were the imams Hassan and Hussein, venerated by Sunni and Shia Muslims. All these graves were wrecked by Saud’s minions, who then looted the treasure at the prophet’s shrine.

The Saud party went on to demolish the cemetery in Mecca where the prophet’s mother, grandfather, and first wife, Khadijah, were buried; then to smash many more honored sites, devastating the architectural achievements of Arabia, including mosques and even Muhammad’s house. Only the tomb of the prophet was spared, after an outcry from traditional Muslims.

This spree of vandalism was accompanied by wholesale massacres of Muslims suspected of rejecting Wahhabism, a fanatical strain of Islam that emerged in Arabia in the eighteenth century and has periodically disturbed the Muslim world. In the nineteenth century, it fueled the Arab nationalist challenge to the tolerant and easygoing Ottoman Empire; and it became, and remains today, the state-sanctioned doctrine of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founded in 1932.

These events of 75 years ago aid in understanding the violence of bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists, who (since the waning of atheist leftism as a motivating ideology) are all Wahhabis. A direct line extends from the demolition of the holy places in Medina and Mecca through the slaughter of 58 tourists in Egypt in 1997, the orgy of killing in Algeria in this decade, and the bombardment of the Buddhist statues at Bamyan by the Taliban only months ago to the assault on the World Trade Center, symbol of Western wealth and power. In all these cases, unrestrained destruction and bloodshed were justified by Wahhabi doctrine.

Wahhabis, who regard the veneration of the prophet and of saints as a polytheistic corruption of Islam, are offended by the honoring of tombs and shrines, along with many other traditional Muslim practices. Observance of the prophet’s birthday, for example, is illegal in Saudi Arabia, although lately Prince Abdullah has introduced a novel concession: Observances in private homes will no longer be subject to suppression by the religious police.

Wahhabism’s bloodstained record explains why so many Muslims around the world fear and hate Islamic fundamentalism—and why certain marginal types are drawn to it. As an acquaintance of mine put it, in Muslim Morocco, the footloose young sons of the lower middle class and proletariat can take one of three paths. They may adopt Western ways, drink and acquire girlfriends, and be envied. They may take up the life of an ordinary observant Muslim and be respected. Or they may join the Wahhabis—funded by the Saudis and organized by such as bin Laden—and be feared.

This is the most important point for Western leaders to understand right now: The West has multitudes of potential Muslim allies in the anti-terror war. They are the ordinary, sane inhabitants of every Muslim nation, who detest the fundamentalist violence from which they have suffered and which is symbolized, now and forever, by the mass murder in New York.

There is another historical lesson to be drawn. Wahhabism—whose quintessence is war on America—seeks to impel Islam centuries back in time, to the faith’s beginnings, yet it is neither ancient nor traditional. Indeed, it achieved its culmination, the establishment of the Saudi kingdom, only in the 1930s, in parallel with fascism and Stalinism. Although it appears to be a rejection of modernity, Wahhabism can usefully be thought of as a variant of the nihilistic revolutionary ideologies that spilled oceans of blood in the twentieth century but finally collapsed—truly, the discredited lies consigned to history’s graveyard of which President Bush spoke.

Saudi-backed Wahhabism may indeed follow communism to disintegration sooner than we think; it may now stand at the close of its influence in the world. That is because the Saudi regime has placed itself in a position much like that of the Soviets at their end. The Saudis have been forced to make concessions to the West that clash with the puritanical demands of Wahhabism; their actions do not match their words. In the same way, the Bolshevik rulers of Russia established an order blatantly in conflict with the egalitarian and progressive promises held out by Communist ideology. And like the Soviets, the Saudis have chosen a method of compensating for their failures that will inevitably undermine their power.

The Soviet Union, although pledging coexistence with the capitalist nations, wasted vast resources on Third World adventures intended to expand its influence and legitimize its revolutionary rhetoric. These ranged from the Spanish Civil War through the Korean War and on to Cuba, Indochina, Central America, Africa, and of course Afghanistan. The irresolvable contradiction between the reality of Soviet communism and its pretensions helped mightily to prepare its downfall.

Similarly, the Saudi regime poses as an ally of the democracies in the antiterrorist coalition, while continuing to spend vast sums of its oil revenues to promote Wahhabi radicalism throughout the Islamic world and the Muslim communities in the West, including America. Recall the Saudis’ obstruction of the investigation of the suicide-bombing of the Khobar towers in which 19 Americans died in 1996. Now it emerges that almost all of the footsoldiers of the September 11 conspiracy whose nationality has been ascertained were Saudi nationals. The truth is that powerful elements in Saudi society have supported Osama bin Laden throughout his campaign of terror, just as they support the Taliban.

An incident observed after the war in Kosovo—in which the West liberated a million and a half Muslims from a genocidal Serbia—shows how the Saudis spread their vicious doctrine and in the process earn the contempt of traditional Muslims. After the NATO bombing ended in July 1999, something called the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, or SJRCK, appeared on the scene. In its first two months, the committee claimed to have spent a million dollars.

Half of this was used to bring 388 Islamic "propagators" or missionaries to Kosovo to spread Wahhabism among the Kosovars. A key goal was to recruit young men for training as Wahhabi imams. Saudi-subsidized mass "cultural programs" featuring prayers and lectures were held in stadiums. Propaganda printed in Albanian pushed a simple message: Reject the West in its totality. The Albanians were unreceptive, and soon the Saudis and "aid workers" from other Gulf states had become so overbearing that the local Muslim clergy were urging U.N. administrators to expel them from Kosovo. The mufti of Kosovo, Dr. Rexhep Boja, declared that the Kosovars had been Muslims for more than 500 years and needed no instruction in the faith from foreigners.

Such anecdotes, common in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, India, and elsewhere, should help the West address its immediate problem: How to beat terrorism without being seen to lead the global crusade against Islam that Wahhabi propaganda insists we intend? We must first abandon the illusion that because the Saudis are rich and their economic interests coincide with ours they are all our friends. But we must also commit time and effort to helping forward-looking, mainstream, and above all anti-Wahhabi Muslims become part of a permanent coalition for worldwide security.

Many strategists in Western capitals ask where we will find Muslims prepared to stand by the West. One tested Muslim statesman who is widely respected, even idolized, in the Islamic world is the wartime president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic. A learned and pious Muslim who was imprisoned for his faith by Tito’s Communist regime, Izetbegovic led the fight for the survival of Bosnian Islam. He is an authentic warrior in a legitimate jihad.

In 1997, addressing the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, Izetbegovic declared, "Islam is best, but we [Muslims] are not the best. The West is neither corrupted nor degenerate. It is strong, well educated, and organized. Their schools are better than ours. Their cities are cleaner than ours. The level of respect for human rights in the West is higher, and the care for the poor and less capable is better organized. Westerners are usually responsible and accurate in their words. Instead of hating the West, let us proclaim cooperation instead of confrontation."

Izetbegovic, of course, is not an Arab, but neither are most of the Muslims in the world. Most of the world’s Muslims, given the chance, would gladly side with Izetbegovic against both bin Laden and his patrons in Saudi Arabia, a culturally incoherent, politically two-faced country that we should regard as a state backer of terrorism at least as dangerous as Libya or Iran.

Stephen Schwartz is working on a book to be entitled The Two Faces of Islam.