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The Elephant in The Middle East Living Room
Watching Wahhabis.


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R. James Woolsey

Early in November, hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee examined hate literature being distributed in American mosques. This material had been translated and published earlier this year by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom. (I was chairman of Freedom House at the time and wrote the book’s foreword.) The hearings examined these Saudi publications in the context of assessing Chairman Arlen Specter’s proposed Saudi Arabia Accountability Act. In addition to the material presented at the hearings, the underlying role of Saudi Arabia’s state religion, generally referred to in the West as Wahhabism, deserves expanded attention for a variety of reasons.

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Recently President Bush addressed a number of the ideological aspects of this long war in which we are now engaged. As he has put it now on two occasions, “Islamofascism” is one plausible characterization of our enemy. Although this is a major step forward beyond designating “terror” as the enemy (we’re certainly at war with more than a tactic, albeit a terrible one) there was still a major element missing in his presentation. The elephant in the Middle East living room is Wahhabism. Over the long run, this movement is in many ways the most dangerous of the ideological enemies we face.

Within Sunni Islam, along with several more moderate schools, there are two varieties of theocratic totalitarianism. Both of these are Salafists, believing that only a literal version of the model of rule implemented in the seventh century in Islam has ultimate legitimacy. Both have the objective of rule by a unified mosque and state; for some this theocracy is personified by the caliph. Different individuals in these movements emphasize different aspects, but generally the common objective is to unify first the Arab world under theocratic rule, then the Muslim world, then those regions that were once Muslim (e.g. Spain), then the rest of the world.

Such totalitarian visions seem crazy to most of us; we thus tend to underestimate their potency. Yet the Salafists’ theocratic totalitarian dream has some features in common with the secular totalitarian dreams of the twentieth century, e.g., the Nazis’ Thousand Year Reich, or the Communists’ World Communism. The latter two movements produced tens of millions of deaths in the 20th century in part because, at least in their early stages, they engendered “fire in the minds of men” in Germany, Russia, and China and were able to establish national bases. Salafists had such a national base for the better part of a decade in Afghanistan and have had one controlling the Arabian Peninsula for some eight decades. They haven’t attained the Nazis’ and Communists’ death totals yet, but this is only due to lack of power, not to less murderous or less totalitarian objectives.

Salafists of both jihadist and loyalist stripe, e.g. both al Qaeda and the Wahhabis, share basic views on all points but one. Both exhibit fanatical hatred of Shiite Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Jews, Christians, and democracy, and both brutally suppress women. They differ only on whether it is appropriate to carry out jihadist attacks against any enemy near or far now–i.e. to murder Iraqi Shiite children getting candy, people working in the World Trade Center, etc.–or whether to subordinate such efforts for the time being to the political needs of a particular state, i.e. Saudi Arabia.

The relationship between the Salafist jihadists such as al Qaeda and Salafist loyalists such as the Wahhabis is thus loosely analogous to that between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists of the 1930’s. Trotskyites, like al Qaeda, believed it was justified to use violence anywhere while Stalinists, like the Wahhabis, showed primary allegiance to protecting “socialism in one country”, i.e. the U.S.S.R. The fact that this difference was only a question of tactics didn’t prevent the Trotskyites and Stalinists from being the most bitter of enemies–Trotsky died in 1940 with a Stalinist axe in his skull.

The “IslamoNazi” Threat

Similarly, al Qaeda launches attacks in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis work with us to capture and kill al Qaeda members who threaten them. In this sense both Saudi government officials and probably even Wahhabi clerics are willing to “cooperate with the U.S. on counter-terrorism.” But this cooperation does not negate the fact that al Qaeda and the Wahhabis share essentially the same underlying totalitarian theocratic ideology. It is this common Salafist ideology that the Wahhabis have been spreading widely–financed by $3-4 billion/year from the Saudi government and wealthy individuals in the Middle East over the last quarter century–to the madrassas of Pakistan, the textbooks of Turkish children in Germany, and the mosques of Europe and the U.S. Alex Alexiev, senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, testified before Congress on June 26, 2003, that this is approximately three-four times what the Soviets were spending on external propaganda and similar “active measures” at the peak of Moscow’s power in the 1970s.

This underlying Salafist ideology being spread by the Wahhabis is fanatical and murderous, indeed explicitly genocidal. (The president’s “Islamofascist” term is thus perhaps understated–the Italian fascists were horrible, but not genocidal. “IslamoNazi” would be more accurate.)

For example, the BBC reported on July 18 of this year that a publication given to foreign workers in Saudi Arabia by the Islamic cultural center, which falls under the authority of the ministry of Islamic affairs, advocates the killing of “refusers” (Shia). The imam of Al-Haram in Mecca, (Islam’s most holy mosque), Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman al-Sudayyis, was barred from Canada last year after the translation of his sermons calling Jews “the scum of the earth” and “monkeys and pigs” who should be “annihilated.” Materials distributed by the Saudi government to the Al-Farouq Masjid mosque in Brooklyn call for the killing of homosexuals and converts from Islam to another religion.

Ideas Have Consequences

The direct consequences of such murderous teachings extend to the war in Iraq. In November of 2004, 26 Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia published a call for jihad against the U.S. in Iraq. Because of the high religious status of the clerics within Saudi Arabia, the exhortation was widely interpreted as a fatwa, a religious ruling. Several Saudi suicide bombers and other terrorists captured in Iraq have indicated that it was this fatwa that had turned them to terrorism. Said one: “I hadn’t thought of coming to Iraq, but I had fatwas . . . I read the communiqué of the 26 clerics … .” During the battle for Fallujah in 2004 Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Abikan said to the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, “What is happening in Falluja is the result of such fatwas … [The resistance] is bringing about tragedy and destruction for Iraq, Falluja, and their residents.” Nasser Sulayman al-Amer, one of the 26 signers of the call for jihad, admitted recently at a press conference in Kuwait that he had met with Iraqis on this matter. On November 13 of this year the Iraqi national-security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie said: “Most of those who blow themselves up in Iraq are Saudi nationals.”

Lost in Translation

Following the controversy over the 26 clerics’ edict the Saudi government retracted it, in a sense. But the only two Saudi officials who released the retraction publicly were two Saudi ambassadors, those to the U.S. and the U.K. And the retractions were issued only in English.

Overbalancing such “retractions” of Wahhabi statements is the fact that Saudi education is turning toward, not away from, Wahhabi influence. In February of 2005 a secularist reformer, Muhammad Ahmad al-Rashid, headed the Saudi Education Ministry. As he was beginning to respond to internal criticism of curricula that incited hatred of non-Muslims and non-Wahhabi Muslims, he was replaced by Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, a hard-core Wahhabi. Controlling 27 percent of the national budget, al-Obaid will have a substantial effect on the views of the next generation of Saudis. His views are illuminated by aspects of his background. From 1995 to 2002, al-Obaid headed the Muslim World League (MWL). According to the U.S. Treasury the MWL’s Peshawar office was led by Wael Jalaidan, “one of the founders of al Qaeda.” Moreover, the main arm of the MWL is the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO). The Egyptian magazine, Rose al-Youssef, describes the IIRO as “firmly entrenched with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization.” In March 2002 the U.S. headquarters representing both organizations was raided and closed by federal authorities. One of the officers of the closed branch in Herndon, Virginia, was al-Obaid. The Wall Street Journal describes him as “an official enmeshed in a terror financing controversy.”

Thinly Veiled Totalitarianism

Wahhabi ideology is also totalitarian to a unique degree in its repression of women. In 2002 the world press carried stories of an extreme example: Religious police in Saudi Arabia forced some young girls fleeing a burning school back inside to their deaths because they were not properly veiled. This is a fanaticism that knows no bounds.

Words and beliefs have consequences, and totalitarians are often remarkably clear about what they will do once they have enough power. Many brushed aside Mein Kampf when it was first written but it turned out to be an excellent guide to the Nazis’ behavior once they had the power to implement it. We ignore the Wahhabis’ teaching of Salafist fanaticism at our peril.

The Struggle for Islam

There are two important points we must understand in dealing with this ideology and its teachings.

First of all, the rest of us–Christians, Jews, other Muslims, followers of other religions, non-believers–are under absolutely no obligation to accept the Wahhabis’ and their apologists’ claims that they represent “true Islam.” This is equivalent to the claims of Torquemada in the 16th century to represent “true Christianity.” He tortured and persecuted Jews, Muslims, and dissident Christians, burned many at the stake, and stole their property. We are under no obligation to take Torquemada’s word that he represented “true Christianity” and would be under no obligation to take the word of any successor should one arise. By the same token, we are under no obligation to accept the Wahhabis’ claim to represent the great and just religion of Islam.

Second, it is difficult for Americans to bring themselves to draw distinctions among those who claim they are following the requirements of their religion–we generally do not want to quarrel with others’ religious beliefs even if they seem very strange to us. But we must realize that murderous totalitarianism that claims religious sanction is different. We have defeated four major totalitarian movements in the last six and a half decades: German Nazism, Italian Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, and Soviet Communism. Only Japanese Imperialism had a major religious element. Communism however was secular, so our current generation of leaders has little experience with a totalitarian ideology that seeks to hide behind one of the world’s great religions the way Torquemada cloaked his murderousness in claims to represent Christianity. This makes it difficult for most Americans to understand IslamoNazism. We tend to regard each person’s religious beliefs as a private matter. But we must learn to make an exception for theocratic totalitarianism masquerading as religion.

During the Cold War we had little difficulty in distinguishing between, say, the Khmer Rouge and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, although both called themselves “Socialists.” But it is harder for us to bring ourselves to distinguish between those who follow the Wahhabi party line on the one hand and, on the other, brave and decent individuals such the American Sufi leader Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, who has been warning Americans of the danger of Islamist terror since well before 9/11. We must get over this reluctance to challenge the perpetrators of and apologists for theocratic totalitarianism.

Cold War Lessons

Does taking on Wahhabism and its supporters mean that we must stand opposed to all cooperation with the government of Saudi Arabia, or attempt to change the Saudi regime in short order? No. The needs of statecraft must also be considered. We fought the Communist ideology in different ways from 1917 through the Cold War. But while we were fighting it, for nearly four years during World War II we were close allies of the Soviets, because we needed them with us against Hitler. Over the years we had commercial relations with them (they bought our wheat and Pepsis, we bought their oil) and some of us spent years negotiating arms-control agreements with them, sometimes to positive effect. In short, we worked as the need arose over the years with the Soviet state, but we generally kept up our ideological struggle against Communism, especially after 1947.

We need to keep this history in mind when dealing with the government of Saudi Arabia. The royal family has some reformers in it, including, to a mild degree, King Abdullah, with whom we may make some common cause. We need to work with the Saudi government on reform and, of course, on issues related to oil. But just as we took steps in the 1980s to try to limit Europe’s dependence on Soviet natural-gas supplies we would be well advised today to reduce our own oil dependency. And we must never forget the underlying totalitarian ideology of the Saudi state.

How might we undertake to fight this Wahhabi ideology? Again, we should recall some Cold War lessons. By the 1950s, after a congressional attempt to outlaw Communism was struck down by the Supreme Court, and after Joseph McCarthy’s attempt to spread guilt by association was defeated, we hit upon several ways to deal with our domestic Communists. We made them register. We infiltrated them with large numbers of FBI agents. We essentially made their lives miserable. It was legal for them and their front groups to exist–indeed they perennially ran Gus Hall for President–and they even recruited some spies for the Soviets. But despite their best efforts they were not a serious force in American life, nor did they succeed in undermining our ability to fight the Cold War. At the same time we made common cause with Democratic socialists around the world, just as we must make common cause today with the hundreds of millions of decent Muslims with whom we have no quarrel.

We should have a frank national discussion about how we may learn from this history and deal with Sunni theocratic totalitarianism–so that we may help it join its secular cousins, Nazism and Communism (and its predecessor totalitarian religious movements such as Torquemada’s Inquisition) where they all rightly belong: on the ash-heap of history.

R. James Woolsey, a former director of Central Intelligence, is co-chairman of the .



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