Recently, some media commentators have argued that, rather than the product of a simple confrontation between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” should be perceived as an eruption into those countries of Wahhabism, the only interpretation of Islam recognized as official in Saudi Arabia.
David Gardner of the Financial Times, for instance, blamed Saudi Arabia indirectly for the growth of ISIS, writing, “Jihadi extremism does present a threat to the kingdom. But in doctrinal terms it is hard to see in what way it ‘deviates’ from Wahhabi orthodoxy.” Others have implied or alleged that Saudi Arabia helps finance ISIS.
On September 30, Financial Times writers Heba Saleh in Cairo and Simeon Kerr in Dubai asserted, “in contrast to the tacit official encouragement of more liberal voices after 9/11, any debate within Saudi Arabia over the role of [Wahhabism] in fostering [ISIS] extremism has been timid and largely confined to social media.”
Yet in analyzing radical Islam, we should make distinctions, not confuse them. Looking back at Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, we would find little public dialogue over the role of Wahhabism in the origins of al Qaeda. The Saudi monarchy and their representatives denied a linkage and discouraged investigation of it. After the U.S.-led Iraq intervention in 2003, Saudi media and websites were replete with praise for Saudi citizens who had died as terrorist combatants north of the kingdom’s border. The Saudis created an ineffective anti-terrorist “rehabilitation” program before “deporting” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to Yemen. Later, however, the Saudis declined to support the Wahhabi Nour party that emerged in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Saudi Arabia had begun to change in 2005 with the death of King Fahd Abd Al-Aziz and ascent to the throne of his half brother, the currently-ruling King Abdullah. Abdullah commenced a series of reforms that while small, nonetheless marked a new direction for the desert realm. In 2007, the so-called “religious police” or “morals patrols,” titled officially the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), and known among the populace as the mutawiyin (volunteers) or hai’a (commission), came under official scrutiny.
Previously, the “morals patrols” had roamed the streets of Saudi cities, carrying leather-covered sticks with which they beat women whose all-covering garment, the abaya, slipped an inch and revealed an ankle, pushing ordinary people toward mosques at prayer times, raiding houses where they suspected alcohol was present, monitoring the highways to prevent women from driving and unrelated couples from riding together, harassing members of the Shia minority, including a rape victim who was punished by lashing, detaining hajj pilgrims who engaged in metaphysical rituals prohibited by the Wahhabis, and killing people in especially-brutal incidents. Thanks to King Abdullah, the morals patrols were subjected to court authority for the first time.
In 2009, King Abdullah established a ministry for women’s education and dismissed the then-head of the morals patrols, Ibrahim Al-Ghaith. Two years later, Saudi women were granted limited electoral rights, to become effective in 2015. Further, King Abdullah announced in 2011 the foundation of the world’s largest university for women, named for his aunt, Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman, and located near the capital, Riyadh.