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Malise Ruthven: How the Saudis used oil money to export a hardline ideology that fuels Islamist terror

Tuesday, 30 October 2007


King Abdullah's complaint that British authorities ignored Saudi warnings of an imminent attack on the UK before the atrocities of 7 July 2005 might be more convincing if they came from the ruler of a country less sympathetic to the Islamist agenda.

Since the 1970s, when rising oil revenues enabled the Saudis to export the Wahhabi brand of fundamentalist Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia has been a major exporter of ideas and values that differ from those espoused by Osama bin Laden and his followers on issues of strategy, but not on the broader perspectives.

During its years of rivalry with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, the Saudi government nurtured leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood which President Nasser had forced underground after an attempt on his life in 1954. Those exiled from Egypt included Muhammad Qutb, the brother of Sayyid Qutb – the Brotherhood's leading intellectual. His writings have helped to inspire a wave of terror attacks, from the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 to the more recent attacks on New York, Madrid and London.

While Muhammad became a shade more moderate than his more famous brother, who was executed 1966, they shared the fundamental belief, which is incompatible with modern pluralism, that Islam (in its narrow, political version) is the only religion for humanity. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 were Saudi citizens.

The Saudi monarchy, always vulnerable to the charge of corruption, nepotism and cosying up to the infidel West to protect its interests, may be belatedly opposed to the current manifestations of jihadism in Europe and America. But its very existence is the result of a successful jihadist movement launched by the kingdom's founder Ibn Saud between 1906 and 1926.

The movement was built around an alliance between a tribal confederation led by the Al Saud family and followers of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who sought to purge Arabian Islam of alien influences, including devotional practices which had grown up in the centuries since the death of Muhammad in 632.

The Wahhabi tribesmen who in 1924 conquered the Hijaz, the western part of what is now Saudi Arabia, were merciless. "I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies, utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank upon rank with only one desire: the defeat and annihilation of the enemy," wrote one Arab witness. "They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men, veritable messengers of death from whose grasp no one escapes."

While the Al-Saud family eventually turned against the more radical tribal forces which brought them to power, defeating them in 1929, they remain vulnerable to the charge of selling out on the Wahhabi religious ideology. Women are still banned from driving and the notorious religious police enforce public morals so strictly that in March 2002 they allowed 14 schoolgirls to die when their school caught fire, rather than allow them to leave the building without the proper Islamic dress. In the 1990s, the Saudis actively supported the Taliban, with whom they have natural affinities, and they are still influential supporters of the Salafist ideas that inform the followers of political Islam in the West.

Wahhabi and Salafist ideas are spread throughout the world through online fatwas (legal rulings) issued by Wahhabi sheikhs, conferences and lectures, television stations or cheap booklets. According to the distinguished French scholar Olivier Roy, these products are "an important part of the curriculum of worldwide Muslim institutions" subsidised by Saudi and Gulf petrodollars.

Through informal networks of disciples and former students, Wahhabi preachers reach lay audiences that are far larger than the madrasas [seminaries] in which they teach. M. Roy is far from being alone in his views. In a recent survey of jihadists, the risk consultancy Europe Exclusive Analysis concluded that "activists invest considerable time and energy in self-study of Wahhabi Islam and subsequently the jihadi strain of Salafism".

King Abdullah has said it may take 30 years to defeat terrorism in his country. Unfortunately, terrorism is the sharp end of ideological forces in his kingdom that are much more entrenched.

Although Saudi Arabia is rich enough to buy the latest weapons (with suitable commissions for princes) and modern technology, the Enlightenment ideas underpinning modern culture are mostly kept at bay.

Terrorism is not just a threat to be countered by force. It is a by-product of the cultural schizophrenia that Saudis are helping to promote.

Malise Ruthven is the author of Islam In The World (Granta) 

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