Salafists Could Roll Arab Spring Back to Arab Winter

Salafist bookshop in Tunis.

Salafist bookshop in Tunis.

In March 2004 , one of us submitted an op-ed to the Denver Post titled “Wahhabism is a threat to World Peace.” The article posited that it was of no wonder that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, has become the philosophical guide for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Taliban. It fits the terrorist mentality well. Its pseudo-philosophy dictates dogmatic, outward acts of worship and rigid intolerance to others; its opposition to any refinement of Islamic culture, philosophy, theology, and the arts freezes cultural innovation. Its austere and regressive world view, with its inflexible doctrine, sows intolerance, discord, sedition, violence and hatred in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Still, we are not surprised that a piece like this never saw the light of day in the American mainstream media. It might be difficult to openly criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; it is even more difficult to challenge the Saudi regime. The critical question that bewilders everyone is the total support of the successive US administrations provide to Wahhabism and its enigmatic and more palatable sister Salafism. Salafism is the older literal interpretation of Islam out of which Wahhabism emerged in the 18th century. Wahhabism is the official religion of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism and Salafism, while slightly different, remain closely related. The Saudis and the Gulf States support Salafism, seeing it as a step towards creating a Wahhabist-dominated Middle East.

Wahhabism: anathema to U.S. policy … or strategic ally?

On the surface it would appear that Wahhabism – a form of extremely radical Islamic “fundamentalism” – would be an anathema to U.S. and European ‘values’ and in fact, it is against precisely this form of Islam that the war on terrorism is being fought. History tells another story. Closer, more careful analysis of U.S. (and earlier British) Middle-East policy suggests quite a different picture: that for nearly a century both American and British policy makers not only made their peace with Wahhabism (and Salafism) but have been in close cooperation with these movements throughout, and even more so today.

Granted that some of the U.S. support for Wahhabism is linked to oil politics and arrangements arrived at as early as the 1940s when President Roosevelt met with Saud bin ‘Abdol-’Aziz on the former’s visit to Egypt on his way home from the Teheran Conference. The deal struck between the two was simple and enduring: in exchange for Saudi Arabia providing a steady flow of oil to the U.S. dominated world economy (at that time), the United States would not interfere with Saudi internal politics.

Nearly seventy years on, both sides have maintained this arrangement. While the pundits are content to attribute this support for oil and the role it plays in the US regional and global strategy, it appears that there are more sinister reasons behind this convenient relationship. It is part of the divide and rule strategy designed to divide and control; the Middle East.

Over one year after the Arab Awakening, better known in the vernacular as Arab Spring, and as we observe political developments in both West and North Africa as well as in the Middle East, it has become clear that Wahhabi and Salafist organizations and political parties are playing an increasingly active and menacing role throughout not only the MENA region but globally.

The Saudi and Qatari Wahhabi/Salafist organizations are very active domestically and internationally. They support other Wahhabi/Salafist groups around the world, in West and North Africa as well as across the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) and Asia, as well as European and American countries. The dogmatic Wahhabi/Salafist approach is gaining ground in these countries particularly among the young Sunni Muslims as it promotes a simple black-and-white licit/illicit, understanding of Islam.

Wahhabism’s binary vision

This binary vision of the world (Muslims versus Kafirs, the good versus the bad, protected religious purity versus corrupting political involvement) has over the years shaped a religious mindset that has led to isolation and a doctrine that sows intolerance, discord, sedition, violence and hatred locally. Muslims, they argued, must isolate themselves from the corrupt surrounding societies, and avoid involvement in politics.

But in recent years and months we have seen a change in Wahhabi/Salafist political involvement. Having for decades refused political participation — equating democracy with kufr (rejection of Islam) and opting for seclusion — they are now slowly emerging out of the woodwork and engaging in politics, financed with Saudi petrodollars. Now we see, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, the rise of active and quite efficient Wahhabi/Salafist organizations and political parties which are playing a substantial role in structuring debates and reshaping the political balance within the respective countries.

The US administration and other European countries are fully aware that Wahhabi/Salafist organizations, based in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East, are pouring millions into countries that have witnessed the uprising, especially recently in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Why, one wonders, do the western countries, especially the US, lend support to this most austere ideology that is so obviously at odds with their own? Well, it is much more sinister than oil.

Basis of the “marriage of convenience”

Here is our take: This marriage of convenience has a number of benefits for the West:

1. Economic gain

The Wahhabi/Salafist ideology may be concerned with political and religious legitimacy, and may be pushing for a rigid and literal interpretation of Islamic Law, but economically they are in collusion with the WB and IMF and their neo-liberal capitalist policies, and as such, care less about Islamic ethics. A cursory look at the extravagant wealth and lavish life style of Wahhabi leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Salafis elsewhere is enough to clarify this point.

2. Divide and conquer

The promotion of the Wahhabi/Salafist ideology within Muslim majority societies helps both to create divisions from within these societies and to prevent the reformist trends and movements, critical of western policies, from gaining ground as well as religious credibility. The West is following an old colonial strategy in using the Wahhabi/Salafists to divide the Muslims on religious grounds: in other words Wahhabi/Salafists become the agents of transforming what is natural diversity among Muslims into an effective and useful tool for division and colonial control. Nowhere is this more visible than when played by the Saudi Wahhabi leaders in inciting sectarian division in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and lately in diverting the Arab spring from attaining its goals.

3. Wahhabi/Salafis and the Palestinian issue

The Salafist resurgence is creating trouble and tension not only between Sunni and Shiite Muslims but within the Sunni communities as well. The Sunni-Shiite fracture in the Middle East is a critical factor in the region especially in light of western and Israeli threats against Iran and the ongoing repression in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. The divide is deep even with regard to the Palestinian resistance, which for years had been a unifying legitimate struggle among Muslims. Now division is the rule, within and without, as Wahhabist/Salafist activism (which cares less about the Palestinian cause) deepens among the Sunnis as well as between Sunnis and the Shiites.

This strategic alliance with the Salafist, on both religious and political grounds, is critical for the West as it is the most efficient way to keep the Middle East under control. Protecting some oil-rich states, as well as their religious ideology while dividing any potential unifying political forces (such as alliances between secular and reformist Islamists or a popular front against Israeli policy), necessitates undermining the Muslim majority countries from within.

The Middle East, as well as North and West Africa countries, are facing serious dangers. The religious factor is becoming a critical one and if the Muslims, the scholars, the religious and political leaders do not work for more mutual respect, unity and accepted diversity, and if this unholy alliance of Wahhabist/Salafist ideological onslaught is not stopped soon, we will have Arab Winter and no Arab Spring.

The US and the Europeans are intent on exploiting disunity in the Arab world to protect Israel, to use the Salafists as a pawn in the global chess game between the West, China and India. If Muslims desire to reject their servitude and to free themselves from the shackle of western colonialism, Wahhabi/Salafist must be stopped from gaining footholds anywhere and everywhere.

Heading towards regional civil war?

Unfortunately, this U.S. policy of supporting a Salafist Middle East revival takes on a more ominous hue. It is likely a key element of a more broad based regional strategy being put in motion for a coming conflict pitting the Moslem countries of the Middle East against each other along religious (Sunni-Sh’ite) lines. If this is the case – and we believe it is shaping up in this direction – it helps to explain why, in part, the US probably does not want Israel to do anything that might spoil the planning by unilaterally attacking Iran. An Islamic civil war could result if the Wahhabi/Salafists are permitted to take control in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere with the US ‘managing’ the conflict and the Wahhabi/Salafists doing the dirty work, like it did by encouraging Iraq to attack Iran in the 1980.

In Part Two, we will look at the roles of the Wahhabi/Salafist movement in Egypt and Tunisia.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.