Liberal Egyptian intellectual Tarek Heggy, author of Culture, Civilization and Humanity, recently wrote about the need for Muslim moderates to work against Wahhabism: “What needs to be done at this stage is to champion the cause of enlightenment by supporting moderates and promoting the humanistic understanding of Islam…. Efforts in this direction must go hand in hand with a counteroffensive against the rigid, doctrinaire, even bloodthirsty, version of Islam that first appeared among isolated communities separated from the march of civilization by the impenetrable sand dunes of the Arabian Desert.”
Heggy, who will embark on a speaking tour in Washington, D.C., in late June to discuss his new Egyptian think tank and newspaper, added: “The time has come for the Saudi government to part ways with Wahhabism and to realize that the alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi dynasty is responsible for the spread of obscurantism, dogmatism, and fanaticism, poisoning minds with radical ideas opposed to humanity….”
In addition to Heggy, an increasing number of reform-minded Muslims have begun to speak out against the impact of Saudi Wahhabism in the Muslim world. They have accused Wahhabism of serving as al Qaeda’s guiding philosophy, “poisoning minds” of young Muslims, and being the main purveyor of anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world.
Egyptian Wael Al-Abrashi, deputy editor of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, wrote a series of articles critical of Wahhabism last year following the Riyadh bombings. According to Al-Abrashi: “Saudi Arabia has become the biggest area for extremist ideology and [provided] the broadest scope for the development of its viruses.”
Since his articles were first released, al Qaeda has attacked Saudi Arabia multiple times, something Al-Abrashi warned would happen: “…Although Saudi Arabia has adopted a strategy of exporting Wahhabism to the rest of the world … Saudi Arabia created the monster, exported it abroad, and then lost control of it. Then, the monster turned on it…”
In an article in the Addis Tribune about the corruption of Somali Islam by Saudi Arabia, journalist Bashir Goth criticized the Saudis’ spreading of Wahhabism to his country: “It is a pity to see that, at a time when Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabism, is reassessing the damage that Wahhabism and extremism had done to their country’s name and to the reputation of Islam all over the world, that Wahhabism has to find a safe-haven in our country.” He also discussed how the Saudi-trained religious police have taken over Muslim towns: “The most conspicuous foot soldiers of Wahhabism are the moral police known as Mutawiun, who roam in the streets like riot police and force people to perform rituals or adhere to Wahhabism’s code of decency…. This is the Wahhabism that the Saudi-oriented clerics want to impose on Somaliland…. It is a closed [mindset] that turned Islam into a fragile creed that lives in constant fear of children’s toys and games such as Barbie dolls and Pokemon…”
Ethiopian journalist Alem Zelalem has written extensively about Wahhabism “corrupting” the Islam of his native Ethiopia and described how Saudis have built hundreds of mosques in Ethiopia over the past eight years, popping up “like weeds.” One way the Saudis have spread Wahhabism to Ethiopians, he explains, is “by taking advantage of the unfortunate economic conditions of the downtrodden Ethiopian masses, the Saudi Embassy in Addis Ababa is busy bribing people to convert to Islam. The usual amount that they pay…is some $600.00.” Zelalem called the mosques and madrassas “brainwashing factories” for teaching jihad and anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic ideology. He detailed how at least 5,000 Ethiopian boys have undergone “military training” for jihad in the Middle East.
Even in Saudi Arabia, the detrimental effects of Wahhabism are now discussed in public. Jamal Khashoggi, who currently advises Saudi Prince Turki in London, was fired last year following the Riyadh bombing when the paper he edited, Al-Watan, included articles critical of Wahhabism’s spiritual father, Ibn Taymiyya. One article written by Khaled Al-Ghanami condemned the Saudi government’s religious police and criticized the “spiritual father of Wahhabism,” calling his philosophy “the real problem,” and “a mistake” for Saudi Arabia.
As current events play out in Saudi Arabia, the royal family would do well to listen to the critique by reformist Muslims on how Wahhabism has negatively impacted their communities. As Wael Al-Abrashi explained, Saudi Arabia created the Wahhabi monster–and then lost control of it. They must now figure out how to battle against it.
–Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.