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The battle for Islam

Wahhabi oil money has spread extremism globally and sparked a battle for the soul of Islam


he atrocities committed by Islamic State as it spreads its tendrils across the world underscore a wider conflict taking place between liberal democracies and those drawn to revolutionary Islamism – often angry and disenfranchised people railing against the predominant ideological system who have found recourse in the new way of life offered by their particular reading of scripture as the angry and the disenfranchised might once turned to socialism or nationalism. But what so violently battered down the doors of the public consciousness on September 11, 2001 and returned with renewed vigour with the rise of Islamic State is not simply a battle between jihadis and the West, but a battle for the heart and soul of Islam itself between those who see it as a religion of peace and tolerance and that minority who want to drag it back to a wholly darker age.
The battle for Islam’s soul dates back to the middle of the 18th Century and the unforgiving Najd desert when an exiled man came upon the sanctuary of an oasis. What he did there would change the world forever.
The man was radical preacher Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab who, in 1744, formed an alliance with the leader of a small clan presiding over the tiny oasis town of Dariyah, Muhammad ibn Saud.
Abd-al-Wahhab saw it as his mission to ‘purify’ Islam, purging it of influences and practices it had acquired throughout the ages and bringing it back to what he saw as the principles of the Salaf, or pious ancestors – those who knew the Prophet Muhammad and the two generations succeeding them. Any act of worship involving anything other than Allah, even those focussed on the Prophet Muhammad, were considered shirk – the sin of idolatry or polytheism. People who practiced such customs, alongside Shiites and Sufis, were not considered true Muslims. They were given a choice: convert or die.
In return for his protection, Abd-al-Wahhab offered ibn Saud glory and power. He would be true to his word. The Wahhabi fanatics came pouring out of Dariyah and across the Hijaz, scaling the walls of Karbala to massacre thousands of Shiites and destroy the tombs of Ali, Husayn and the Imams, butchering the men and enslaving the women of Taif, and conquering Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
“Once established in the holy cities, they set about destroying the tombs of the Prophet and his Companions, including those pilgrimage sites that marked the birthplace of Muhammad and his family,” writes Reza Aslan in his book ‘No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam’. “They sacked the treasury of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and set fire to every book they could find, save the Quran. They banned music and flowers from the sacred cities and outlawed the smoking of tobacco and the drinking of coffee. Under penalty of death, they forced the men to grow beards and the women to be veiled and secluded.”
The Wahhabis’ successes and excesses eventually drew the attention of the Ottoman powers and the first Saudi state was crushed in 1818. Cast back into the Nadj, there they lay dormant for almost a century.
Wahhabism may have remained just another one of history’s failed fanatical ideologies were it not for the outbreak of World War I and an alliance between Ibn Saud’s heir, Abd-al-Aziz, and the British which helped bring down the Ottoman Empire. With the arms and money of their superpower ally, this new generation of Wahhabis went on to reconquer Mecca and Medina and thus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born.
Even then, the extremist, ultraconservative form of Islam followed by Abd-al-Wahhab’s descendants may have remained constrained to the Arabian peninsula were it not for an important discovery beneath its desert sands: oil.
From a remote oasis to the heart of the global economy, the House of Saud had all the glory and power Abd-al-Wahhab first promised it. What’s more, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and oil embargo in response to US aid to Israel sent oil prices rocketing, it had the abundant wealth to spread its ideology to all corners of the Muslim world and beyond.
How the world was won
Since 1975, Saudi Arabia has spent an annual $2-3 billion on spreading Wahhabism around the world, according to academic Yahya Birt, a figure up to three times higher than the Soviet propaganda budget. A US Senate committee on terrorism heard in 2003 that in the previous 20 years Saudi Arabia had spent $87 billion on promoting Wahhabism worldwide. As of 2007, the money had been used to build more than 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic Centres and dozens of schools. And whilst using its wealth to bring its version of Islam to the world, Saudi Arabia has also been intent on bringing the world’s Muslims to it: the Islamic University of Medina has more than 5,000 students from 139 countries and the Saudis have reserved 85% of places for foreigners. The effect of this proselytising of Wahhabism has been a dramatic impact on Muslim communities around the world and the beginnings of a conflict over the meaning of Islam itself.
“Prior to 1973, Islam everywhere was dominated by national or local traditions rooted in the piety of the common people,” writes Gilles Kepel in ‘Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam’. “After 1973, the oil-rich Wahhabites found themselves in a different economic position, being able to mount a wide-ranging campaign of proselytising among the Sunnis… The objective was to bring Islam to the forefront of the international scene, to substitute it for the various discredited nationalist movements, and to refine the multitudes of voices within the religion down to the single creed of the masters of Mecca. The Saudis’ zeal now embraced the whole world, extending beyond the traditional frontiers of Islam to the heart of the West, where immigrant Muslim populations were their special target.”
Europe plays host to a sizeable Muslim population with diverse origins. In 2004, North Africans made up an estimated 10% of the French population, while in Germany, Turks comprise the largest ethnic minority with 3.5 million people of Turkish origin living in the country in 2010. The early generations of Muslims coming to the United Kingdom after World War II, meanwhile, were largely made up of socio-economic migrants from the empire’s former colonies in South Asia and that had a bearing on the relationship between faith and nation people held.
“My father came to Britain in 1953,” Haras Rafiq, outreach officer at the counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation, tells The World Weekly. “He thought he’d save £100 and then return to Pakistan. In the end he became a millionaire and stayed. He was always Pakistani and Muslim and brought me up to be British and Muslim. The interpretation of Islam brought with this generation was opposite to that of the Wahhabis.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Rafiq says, a different type of Muslim immigrant began to arrive. They were more often asylum seekers from the Middle East, Tunisia and Algeria and they brought with them a political activism that the socio-economic migrants didn’t have.
The new fired-up, politically displaced migrants had a desire to spread Islamist views among the Muslim population and they found willing funding from the Wahhabis of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar to do so. Over time, the Wahhabi appeal was spread to the children and grandchildren of the first generation South Asian immigrants, a politically detached generation of young Muslims who, because they neither grew up in Pakistan nor held the sense of loyalty to the country that took their parents in, have been left in search of their own identity.
“They have no patience with the old tribal rivalries of their parents’ generation,” writes Paul Vallely in the Independent. “They have weak links with the Indian subcontinent. They are unhappy with rural imams imported from Pakistan who do not understand the culture of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and politics that surrounds them. And they have been educated in a system that trains them to challenge and to research on their own.”
Funding mosques and faith schools and channelling their vast wealth through a network of charities and organisations such as the Muslim World League, founded in 1962 as a counter-initiative to secular Arab nationalism, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have been able to disseminate their Salafi ideology and steadily gain influence. Through these institutions, Mr. Rafiq argues, they taught young Muslims that their parents’ faith was wrong.
Salafism refers to the movement within Islam that takes its name from the Salaf, or pious ancestors, whom Abd-al-Wahhab saw as the epitome of Islamic practice. The term Salafism and Wahhabism are often used interchangeably, though Salafis tend to view the term Wahhabi as derogatory.
“They were able to convince Muslims that the actions their parents took were haram [forbidden] – that by wishing their neighbours happy Christmas they were falsely associating with other deities, and this brought their parents into a state of disbelief,” says Mr. Rafiq. “Meanwhile the Saudis were taught to be the guardians of the true faith.”
Not all Salafis accept the Saudis as guardians of the true faith, however. Some, such as radical activist Anjem Choudary, believe that the Saudis long ago lost their way, pointing to the British assistance they received in founding their state.
“There is a misunderstanding about Salafism,” Mr. Choudary tells The World Weekly. “There are many types. The Saudis worship King Abdullah, they are not following the first generation. Those engaging in jihad are far removed from the Saudis who call for them to be arrested.”
Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the ideas taken up by the Salafi jihadis would have been able to spread so rapidly among Muslim populations without the vast oil wealth of the Wahhabi states. Mr. Vallely cites a disputed 2007 report by academic Dr. Denis MacEoin, which claimed to have uncovered extremist literature in a quarter of Britain’s mosques, all published and distributed by agencies linked to the government of Saudi King Abdullah.
“Among the more choice recommendations in leaflets, DVDs and journals were statements that homosexuals should be burnt, stoned or thrown from mountains or tall buildings (and then stoned where they fell just to be on the safe side),” writes Mr. Vallely. “Those who changed their religion or committed adultery should experience a


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