Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul

For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Wahhabism's explosive growth began in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Islamabad to Culver City, California. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Mai Yamani, an anthropologist who studies Saudi society; Vali Nasr, an authority on Islamic fundamentalism; Maher Hathout, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California; and Ahmed Ali, a Shi'a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. (Also see the Links and Readings section of this site for more analyses of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia.)

Ahmed Ali
a Shi'a Muslim who grew up in Saudi Arabia

If you go to school in Saudi Arabia, what do you learn about people who are not followers of Wahhabi, of the prophet?

The religious curriculum in Saudi Arabia teaches you that people are basically two sides: Salafis [Wahhabis], who are the winners, the chosen ones, who will go to heaven, and the rest. The rest are Muslims and Christians and Jews and others.

students They are either kafirs, who are deniers of God, or mushrak, putting gods next to God, or enervators, that's the lightest one. The enervators of religion who are they call the Sunni Muslims who ... for instance, celebrate Prophet Mohammed's birthday, and do some stuff that is not accepted by Salafis.

And all of these people are not accepted by Salafi as Muslims. As I said, "claimant to Islam." And all of these people are supposed to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed. And we have several clergy -- not one Salafi clergy -- who have said that against the Shi'a and against the other Muslims. And they have done it in Algeria, in Afghanistan. This is the same ideology. They just have the same opportunity. They did it in Algeria and Afghanistan, and now New York. ...

What do you mean, it reached New York?

Well, when it was a local problem, the American media did not really care much about it. But until September 11, you saw how this faith of hate, I call it, did to all of us, to New Yorkers and to the rest of the world, honestly. ...

But the Saudi government has condemned what happened on September 11....

... Yes, Prince Nayif condemned bin Laden, and other princes... Prince Turki condemned bin Laden. They did not condemn that message. They condemned bin Laden. ... Bin Laden learned this in Saudi Arabia. He didn't learn it in the moon. That message that Bin Laden received, it still is taught in Saudi Arabia. And if bin Laden dies, and this policy or curriculum stays, we will have other bin Ladens. ...

Can you show me an example of what the [religious teaching is in the schools?

Well, here, this is a book, hadif, for ninth grade. Hadif is a statement of Prophet Mohammed. This is a book that start for ninth graders. This is talking about the victory of Muslims over Jews. This is a hadif that I truly believe it's not true, as a Muslim:

"The day of judgment will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews, and Muslim will kill Jews until the Jew hides behind a tree or a stone. Then the tree and the stone will say, 'Oh Muslim, oh, servant of God, this is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.' Except one type of a tree, which is a Jew tree. That will not say that." This is taught for 14-year-old boys in Saudi Arabia.

In middle schools...

In middle schools, yes. Official middle schools. This is a book printed by Saudi government Ministry of Education. (Ed. Note: read some excerpts from these textbooks.)

Mai Yamani
an anthropologist specializing in Saudi society

... When the Saudi government came to power in 1932, it tried to get rid of these various different groups, or ethnic groups or beliefs, and unify it all into one?

Actually, yes. ... [into] the Wahhabi Islamic thought... They regarded it as much purer because it's more fundamentalist, much more conservative than the people who are like in the south, the people in Mecca, who had more mystical religious trends, such as the Sufi trend, which is very mystical.

So the state religion in Saudi Arabia is this pure, stricter form of Islam?

Yes. ...

And we're told by people we've interviewed that it's the nature of this thought, its fundamentalist nature, that can be easily manipulated, so that people would, for example, become violent or extremist.

I think that the new mood, the new trend, especially after the Gulf War, has become for all these neo-Wahhabis ... [is to use] Islam ... as a platform for political ideas and activities, using Islam to legitimize political, economic, social behavior. These people have been brought up in a country where Islam legitimizes everything. And they have used the teachings from the religious establishment, but became more political in expressing dissent and criticism of the regime.

And it's been exported. To Pakistan, through systems of madrassas and throughout the Islamic world.

And it has been exported, yes, indeed.

We are told that it's this form of fundamentalist religion represented by this Wahhabi-influenced Islamic, if you will, ideology, or view, that has created, if you will, a seedbed for people to become violent, to become anti-American, and to do the kinds of things that we call "extremism" now. Is that true?

I don't think it has to do with Islam. I don't think it has to do with any form of this ... Islamic interpretation. ... Of course there is a problem with dogma. But I think the problem lies with the political systems that use religion. ...

There's been a politicization of Islam. You've said it. But bin Laden, and his, if you will, similar people, are using Islam to promote political goals.


They base this on a dogmatic interpretation of the religion itself, black and white. Is the base of support that they are gaining a result of this proliferation of this view of Islam? ... Wahhabism is what I am talking about. ... Is there a relationship between that and this development that we see of bin Laden and his movement?

Probably there would be a relation between an interpretation of Islam that lacks tolerance, and is a more narrow vision of the world. But particularly the problem is about the political systems that promote this type of interpretation of religion. This gives people the excuse, the platform, to go ahead and express themselves in Islamic language to suit their purpose of political ends.

vali nasr
an authority on Islamic fundamentalism

... Saudi Arabia has its own particular interpretation of Islam which is very legalistic, is very austere, it's very black-and-white.

[Wahhabism is] sort of an extreme orthodoxy that historically has not been shared by a majority of Muslims, particularly nobody outside of the Arabian Peninsula.


Is there a connection between the fundamentalism of the Taliban and the fundamentalism of the Wahhabi?

The connection has been growing very, very strong in the past 20 years, and particularly in the past ten years. The dominant school of Islam with which the Taliban associate -- which is known as the Deobandi school -- is very prominent in Afghanistan and also in wide areas of Pakistan. Northern India has increasingly gravitated toward Wahhabi teaching, and has very, very strong organizational ties with various Wahhabi religious leaders.

When we saw the Taliban destroy the Buddhist statues and other artifacts in Afghanistan, is that similar to a Wahhabi view?

Yes, yes. Because Wahhabis don't believe in tombstones, don't believe in images being acceptable, don't believe in statues. They believe all of these are forms of polytheism. A majority of Muslims don't share that degree of literal reading of religious texts or banning of these kinds of reflections. ...

And the Wahhabis dominate in Saudi Arabia?

The Wahhabis dominate in Saudi Arabia, with also significant influence and presence in United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait. ...

The nature of these Islamic beliefs, you're saying, foster fundamentalist extremism?

The teachings are fundamentalist in the definition you have in mind. The question is who's going to cross the line and engage in violent acts or not. So you see, recruitment into terrorist movements is small generally.

There's a big swamp out there of people.

Right, yes. And what we're confronting is not just flushing out Al Qaeda. The bigger headache for the U.S. government is dealing with the Muslim world as a whole, with the political ramifications of our counterattack. That's the bigger problem. ...

Maher Hathout
a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California

But what is the creed of Islam that is preached in Saudi Arabia? What is it called?

Well, the word "creed" is important because the creed of Islam is the same: the belief in one God, the belief in the oneness of his message, the oneness of the human family. And the devotion to God should be expressed in human rights, good manners, and mercy, peace, justice, and freedom. No two Muslims will argue about this creed. It is documented in the Koran as the highest authority, modeled by the authentic teaching of the prophet, and the authenticity has always been subject of study and debate.

students So the creed is crystal clear. But the interpretation or the way you approach life, which should be a dynamic thing, should change from time to time. When you freeze it at a certain period or at a certain interpretation, problems happen. I know that people called it Wahhabism; I don't subscribe to the term. [Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab] at his time was considered a progressive person.

If you freeze things at his time -- which was the eighteenth century, or the late part of the seventeenth century, I don't remember the dates exactly -- it becomes very stagnant and very literalist. And a very straitjacketed puritan approach that does not cater to the changeables and the dynamics of life. People call this Wahhabism.

Saudis, by the way, never say, "We are Wahhabis." They say, "We are just Muslims." But they follow the teachings, and the major booklets taught in all schools are the books of Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab. Anyone who's subscribing to someone else is not very much welcomed.

So there's a quote in the [New York Times] article that we were looking at before that basically says that Saudi Arabians believe that their form of Islam ... is the real true form of Islam, and that pretty much any other kind of way of practicing Islam is wrong.

Yes. This is probably some of the Saudi scholars. ... They are playing the role of clergy; there should be no church in Islam. There should be no theological hierarchy. But they acquired that position and, of course, them and the ruling family are very close. After all, Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab is the one who paved the road for Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the patriarch of the family, to conquer the rest of the [Arabian] Peninsula and to rule. So there is very great cohesiveness between the two.

And so they believe that that's it, this is the truth. And not only that that is it, it does not change, which is very problematic. Because we know that even at the early history of Islam, as new issues emerged, new jurisprudence was created to suit the change of the time and age. That's early on, at probably 25 years after the death of the prophet, peace be upon him.

So they, that group of people, believe that this is the only form and it does not change. This of course creates major problems, and it creates some kind of schizophrenic situation. ... I don't think that Wahhabism ... will condone or accept lots of things that are done by some of the elite of Saudi Arabia who come to Las Vegas and have fun and do this and do that. And we don't hear a very strong voice exposing this or condemning them for that. But if they see a woman driving a car, they consider this a major sin. There is confusion here.

We wanted to actually protect Islam from that very narrow tunnel-visioned look that will make it irrelevant, will marginalize Islam as one of the shaping factors of human civilization, as it has always been. Once you are irrelevant to the civilization of the time and age, you can have your own cocoon and say whatever you want. But who cares?

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