Reining in Riyadh

, April 6, 2003

New York Post

Much of the pre-war negotiation between the United States and its allies centered around the question of what should be the next steps in the Middle East after the removal of Saddam Hussein.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has placed an unusual amount of stress on going back to the Palestinian question as the next major focal point of diplomacy. But it is imperative to remember that America is still engaged in a war on international terrorism in order to make sure that an attack on the United States on the scale of 9/11 or worse never again occurs.

Unlike Westerners, who emphasize the nuts-and-bolts aspects of fighting terrorism, Middle Easterners have stressed the need to deal with the ideological or motivational sources of the new wave of global attacks. Islamic scholars, in particular, have traced the underpinnings of the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to a very specific creed of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, known in the West as Wahhabism, that dropped the relative tolerance that Islamic civilization showed, in certain periods, towards its non-Muslim minorities, particularly Christians and Jews.

Can 21st century terrorism really be linked to a creed developed in the mid-18th century? To answer that question, one must look not just at Wahhabism’s profound influence in modern Saudi Arabia, but also at Saudi Wahhabism’s ties to outbursts of violence throughout its history. Specifically, Wahhabi Islam provided the backdrop for three waves of extreme militancy that resulted in terrible atrocities in the Middle East.

The first wave came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Wahhabism revived the Islamic idea of jihad as military expansionism – a concept that had fallen out of favor with traditional Islam after the early Muslim conquests. Wahhabism also broke with Islamic tradition by legitimizing jihad against other Muslims.

Wahhabism gave teeth to its tenets by arming itself through an alliance between its founder, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, and the head of the Saudi clan, Muhammad ibn Saud, in 1744.

In the name of Wahhabism, its adherents were extraordinarily brutal toward noncombatants, including women and children, delegitimizing them as mushrikun, or polytheists, who did not have any right to live. Most notably, in 1802 Wahhabi armies slaughtered thousands of Shiites in their holy city of Kerbala, situated in Ottoman Iraq. Wahhabi warriors also destroyed tombs and other Shiite shrines.

Such brutality is, in fact, at the core of modern terrorism, for the early Wahhabi warriors acted on Wahhabism’s claims that entire groups of people have no right to live and deserve to be slaughtered. And delegitimizing other religious groups and labeling them as infidels or, even worse, as polytheists – often based on the imprecations of mainstream Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia – is precisely how Osama bin Laden’s mass terrorism works.

The second wave of Wahhabi violence came with the formation of modern Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century. The successor as the emir of the Saudi clan, Ibn Saud, re-established his family’s alliance with the Wahhabi movement, promoting the creation of a fanatical Wahhabi army called the Ikhwan.

The Ikhwan waged a jihad against other Muslims in Arabia, including Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who established the Hashemite dynasty that ruled first in Arabia and then in Syria, Iraq and Transjordan. As many as 400,000 Arabs were killed or wounded in these campaigns.

Like the Saudi Wahhabi warriors in Kerbala more than a century earlier, these soldiers of Wahhabism justified their atrocities by labeling their victims as polytheists.

The Ikhwan were initially held in check by the Royal Air Force and other British military units, but ultimately it was Ibn Saud himself who had to turn against the Wahhabi warriors in order not to lose control of his nascent Saudi state. Wahhabism’s third wave began in the 1950s and lasted through the 1970s, when modern Saudi Arabia became a refuge for Islamic radicals who fled from persecution by militant pan-Arab secular rulers, especially Egypt’s Nasser. This third wave, in fact, laid the groundwork for Saudi support of modern global terrorism.

In this period, thousands of members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sought asylum and employment in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government erected universities to serve the Muslim world, including the Islamic University of Medina and King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. The faculties of these schools consisted of both Wahhabi clerics and the Muslim Brothers.

The ideologies of the two movements were fused so that eventually a new hybrid developed, best exemplified by Muhammad Qutb (the brother of the Muslim Brotherhood’s martyred ideologue, Sayyid Qutb) and especially by Abdullah Azzam, a former member of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both taught at King Abdul Aziz University and both had a young Saudi student named Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Wahhabi clerics issued texts in which they determined that present-day Christians were not the “people of the book” that Islam was committed to protect, but rather hated mushrikun (polytheists). These texts spoke about a new “Crusaderism” more than 20 years before Osama bin Laden’s men brought down the World Trade Center.

The preachers in Saudi mosques echoed these themes in their sermons, which were frequently broadcast on Saudi state television. As late as 2001, a Saudi eighth-grade textbook would explain to Saudi schoolchildren that because Christians and Jews had become polytheists, Allah had turned them into “apes and pigs.”

Saudi Arabia in this period also created its large Muslim international charities, such as the Muslim World League, which exported the kingdom’s Wahhabi version of Islam. These charities were not nongovernmental entities or international organizations like the International Red Cross.

But the Saudi charities also facilitated the growth of Islamic militancy, subsidizing, for example, the flow of men and material to conflict areas. After the death of Abdullah Azzam in 1989, his successor, Osama bin Laden, used the charities to pay the salaries of his al Qaeda operatives around the world.

The International Islamic Relief Organizations (IIRO), in particular, was repeatedly identified as a conduit for funding to the Abu Sayyaf organization, which fought the government in the Philippines, to al-Khattab’s militia in Russia, and to terrorist networks in East Africa. In fact, IIRO payment schedules to Hamas were found by Israel. And if IIRO was involved in terrorism in each of these areas, that meant the Saudi government was involved as well.

In recent years, the connection between the Saudi government and its Wahhabi charities was graphically laid out in court testimony given in Canada by a local representative of the Muslim World League: “Let me tell you one thing. The Muslim World League, which is the mother of IIRO, is a fully government-funded organization. In other words, I work for the government of Saudi Arabia. Second, the IIRO is the relief branch of that organization, which means we are all controlled in all our activities and plans by the government of Saudi Arabia.”

What will be essential after Iraq is getting Saudi Arabia to change its ways.

It is not necessary to talk about regime change in Saudi Arabia. And it would be a mistake to focus on Wahhabi Islam, as its Muslim detractors insist; but it is legitimate to insist that Saudi Arabia finally address some of its more noticeable external manifestations.

First, the Saudi regime must stop using its large Wahhabi charities to fund terrorist groups, once and for all. Unfortunately, it looks like the Saudis are making a far greater effort at covering up these faults, with expensive p.r. efforts, rather than actually halting their contacts with these organizations.

It is also legitimate to expect that Saudi Arabia stop the systematic incitement of its population against the West and non-Wahhabi religious groups. Of course, Saudi Arabia is free to teach what it wants to its children, but there are consequences that result from the systematic delegitimization of other peoples by Saudi Arabia’s national educational institutions.

It was no coincidence that Osama bin Laden recruited 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers from Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s, Saudis were the largest national component brought into the al Qaeda network because they were predisposed to its message. Saudi Arabia should not continue to be a breeding ground for these groups.

Diplomats are trained to deal chiefly with classic international problems like the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It comes to them naturally to become engrossed in its details, even before the Iraqi issue is resolved. But if terrorism is to be put to an end, altering the behavior of Saudi Arabia must become a top postwar priority.

About Dore Gold

The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and serves as an external advisor to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).