The Wahhabi Threat To Islam
By Mona Eltahawy
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page B07
When gunmen killed 22 people in the city of Khobar in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province last weekend, they set off alarm bells in international oil markets. But louder bells should be ringing throughout the Muslim world over the cost to Islam of this conflict between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi zealots it helped create and who now vow to overthrow it.
Islam was born in what is now Saudi Arabia. King Fahd calls himself "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina, which millions of Muslim pilgrims visit every year. If oil has been Saudi Arabia's trump card on the international stage, then Islam has given it plenty of cachet on the Muslim one.
So when those gunmen in Khobar tell terrified foreign oil workers they are looking for "infidels" during an hours-long shooting spree that leaves 22 dead, including a 10-year-old Egyptian schoolboy, and claim that it is in the name of Islam that they drag the corpse of a 62-year-old Briton through the streets and slit the throats of nine hostages, the Muslim world cannot be silent. It is long past time for Muslims to question the Wahhabi ideology that is pulling the rug out from under Saudi life, for it is that same ideology that has been involved in militant movements throughout the Muslim world for years.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years in the 1980s and know how all-pervasive Wahhabism is. It was there in posters that lined the corridors of my women-only university showing how a "good Muslim woman" should dress -- in black from head to toe -- and it made sure that gender apartheid kept those same good Muslim women in the back two rows of the bus.
It was there in shopping malls patrolled by morality police ready to arrest shopkeepers who didn't close their stores for prayer time and it was there in the grim Friday evening news tally of the day's public beheadings.
And it is there today, clearly, in the issues that occupy the time of Saudi clerics. Two weeks before the Khobar rampage, a young Saudi friend forwarded me a copy of a fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by Saudi Arabia's senior clerics. It was a fatwa banning the giving of flowers when visiting the sick in the hospital. "It is not the habit of Muslims to offer flowers to the sick in hospital. This is a custom imported from the land of the infidels by those whose faith is weak. Therefore it is not permitted to deal with flowers in this way, neither to sell, to buy nor to offer them as gifts," the fatwa said.
Wahhabi militants operate in that chasm between the mind-set that bans flowers for the sick and life as we know it in 2004. Osama bin Laden may be Wahhabism's most recognizable face but it does not lack for followers or hatred, and not just for the "infidels" -- women and non-Wahhabis are equally derided.
While there is little doubt that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and now the U.S. occupation of Iraq fuel many a militant's fire in the Middle East, Wahhabi Islam can be found in most of the embers.
The Saudi royal family has its own reckoning to do with Wahhabism. By giving Wahhabis a free hand over Saudi Arabia's religious and educational sectors, the royal family guaranteed the showdown. Instead of fostering a liberal and intellectual class that despises the Wahhabis and could have been an important ally against them, the Saudi government instead imprisons those calling for liberal reform.
Last year, Crown Prince Abdullah brought together Saudi intellectuals, including women and members of the country's Shiite minority, to debate much-needed reform as an antidote to Wahhabism run amok, but every discussion of reform is tempered with the caveat: "It cannot be too fast."
What is "too fast" when militants carry out two audacious attacks within a month against expatriates in the oil sector? What is too fast when their car bombings kill Saudis and non-Saudis, Muslims and non-Muslims alike?
"I am scared," a Saudi man told me after the Khobar attacks. "There is no clear vision to where my country is heading. We want to progress, but we also want to live like the good Muslims did 1,400 years ago. We want to change, but we believe that change is the road to hell. We want the people to have a role in leading the country, but we don't want democracy. We want to have dialogue with the West, but our preachers are preaching every Friday that all westerners, or non-Muslims, go to hell."
The Muslim world must speak up not only for its religion but for Saudis caught between the rock of the royal family and its absolute rule and the hard place of the Wahhabis and their unforgiving Islam.
Mona Eltahawy is managing editor of Arabic Women's eNews and a columnist for the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company