The Rise of the Wahhabi Movement and the Saudi State

Khalid al-Dakhil
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Monday, February 5, 2007; 11:00 AM

Khalid al-Dakhil, assistant professor of sociology Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was online Monday, Feb. 5 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss his research into the ascent of Wahhabist Islam -- the strict interpretation adhered to by some al-Qaeda members -- and the Saudi state in the early 20th Century. The Saudi writer and academic holds a doctorate in sociology from UCLA.

Read the story: Saudi Writer Recasts Kingdom's History (Post, Feb. 4)

The transcript follows.


Helsinki, Finland: What is the relation of the early history of the Wahhabi movement -- vis a vis the conflicts that King Abdul Aziz had with the Bedouin Ikhwan man Ata' Allah -- to what we currently see in the ideological views of the modern terrorist groups? It does seem that they have taken it upon themselves to revive the rebellious tendencies and extremism that was fought by King Abdul Aziz.

Khalid al-Dakhil: There is a difference between the early and modern Wahhabis. In its early time the Wahhabi religious establishment was sort of unified institution. The current Wahhabism is starting to disintegrate into different trends -- now you have what might be called the establishment Wahhabis, the neo-Wahhabis and the Jihadists, who seem to be behind the terrorist phenomena in Saudi Arabia. As to the Ikhwan movement of King Abdul Aziz's time, that is again another story. On the one hand they were closer to the early and traditional Wahhabis; on the other they were using religion to make a political claim in the newly established state -- a claim they saw should be proportionate to the role they played the creation of the state.


Bonn, Germany: Most Europeans believe that Saudi Arabia is financing the constructions of Mosques all over the world -- in Muslim countries and those where Muslims are a minority. Wahhabism supposedly is taught in these Mosques, thus influencing Muslims all over the world with this most-intolerant form of Islam. I wonder, is that correct? If it is correct, is it a problem for Islam and the rest of the world and should countries thus infiltrated try to prevent it?

Khalid al-Dakhil: I think that is correct, and it may be a problem, but the solution is not to silence the Wahhabis or anybody else -- the solution is to have a dialogue between cultures, religions and nations. The crux of the problem is in the behavior of the nation-state and the fact these nations are in a state of constant conflict without allowing enough room for cultural and political exchange and dialogue. Lately there seems to be a change from that -- let's hope for the better.


New York, N.Y.: Dr. Al-Dakhil: Marhaba from NYC. How is the political influence of the Wahhabi movement constraining the Saudi government's range of response to foreign policy challenges? Can the Saudi government exert a level realpolitik or is it bound by doctrine? I'm especially interested in how that colors actions to co-opt or undercut Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.

Khalid al-Dakhil: Well, I would say that the influence of the Wahhabi ideology on the foreign policy of the Saudi state is very limited. It should be recalled that the Saudi relations with the U.S. ( a Christian nation) are more than 70 years old -- it was an alliance forged by the founding father of Saudi Arabia. In other words, this relationship started during the time the Saudi society was most conservative, and closer to the Wahhabi society of the 19th century. The power of the Wahhabi establishment then was at its peak, and yet there was no problem. The problem started after the 1980s, and specifically after the war to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviet occupation.

In the Saudi state there is a clear distinction between the realm of religion, where the ulama are accorded a wide leeway, and the realm of politics, where the ruler is given a free hand to run the affairs of the state. So the Saudi government can co-opt or undercut the Iranians in Iraq without having to answer to the Wahhabi clerics. It's a matter of the political interests of the state, and the clerics. And remember that the Saudi role in the events in Iraq since the American invasion has been limited not because of the Wahhabis but because of the Bush administration.


Sarasota, Fla.: "Wahhabism" seems to be a catch-all term used to describe/define all forms of fundamentalist Islam -- and often with a subtext of violence. Can you help differentiate between the various threads such as "salafism," "neo-salafism," "Deobandism," "Muslim Brotherhood tendencies," etc., in order to find useful terms for the discussion of Wahhabism and its role in contemporary Saudi Arabia?

Khalid al-Dakhil: The central concept here is "Salafism", or "assalafiyyah" in Arabic. It denotes a way or method of thinking, and so it's a school of theological and legal thought in Islam. It is the dominant school in Islam in the past and in the present. Wahhabism, the Muslim brotherhood, etc. are variations or trends of the same school.


Athens, Ga.: Can you discuss the political and doctrinal divisions that exist within contemporary Wahhabism?

Khalid al-Dakhil: I previously answered part of this question. Wahhabism now is a unified establishment as it used to be in the past. There are different trends within, and that is a development that came about as a result of the tremendous changes that the Saudi society experienced in the past half-century or so.


Toronto: Dear Prof. Khalid al-Dakhil: Salaam Alaikum. What was the role of the British and did they have any contact or links to Abdul Wahab, directly or indirectly, in trying to undermine the Ottoman empire?

Khalid al-Dakhil: There was no role that the British played in the rise of the Wahhabi movement whatsoever. There is nothing in the history of the Wahhabi movement to suggest that there was such a role.


Washington, D.C.: Are there more moderate interpretations of Islam in Saudi Arabia today that have popular appeal -- i.e. alternatives to the interpretation of Wahhabism adopted and enforced by the state and the extremist interpretations adopted by jihadis?

Khalid al-Dakhil: Yes there are. There is what I called before the neo-Wahhabis, or the Sahwah, which tend to combine Wahhabi ideology and the political convictions of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. This trend is a real challenge to the traditional Wahhabis. There is also what I like to call to call the liberal Muslims -- this is a new trend that champions a more open and liberal interpretation of Islam, according to which pluralism and diversity is acceptable and encouraged.


Washington, D.C.: What are the points of tension and of common ground between reactionary Wahhabists and reactionary Shiites in Iran? In other words is a confrontation brewing between the Saudis and Iranians in the Gulf, and if so, what form(s) might it take?

Khalid al-Dakhil: The central point of tension between the reactionary Wahhabis and reactionary Shiites is the old theological differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis in general. The tension here revolves mainly around the political question of who should have been the successor to the prophet. Around this question is a huge body of thought and beliefs that kept growing and creating the gulf between the two. I don't think a confrontation is brewing between Saudi Arabia and Iran at this point -- after all, the two are leading the efforts to find a solution to the political impasse in Lebanon. What is brewing between the two at present are political and strategic interests in the Gulf and the Middle East as a whole, not theological dispute. You know, there is the nuclear issue, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran is trying to reap the fruits of the disastrous American failures in Iraq and Palestine, and also the Arab weakness on both fronts. On the other hand Saudi Arabia is trying to salvage the situation, so that it can put a limit to growing Iranian influence in the region and minimize the disruption of the balance of the power in the Arabian Gulf as a result of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. I'm not trying here to minimize the role of religion; rather, I'm trying to recognize the political context of this role. Maybe the role of religion is more crucial in the case of Iran, which is ruled by the clergy.


Anonymous: Dear Dr. Khalid al-Dakhil: Are Saudi historians like yourself attempting in any systematic way to conduct oral history interviews of Saudis (and Aramcon Americans perhaps) who played a role in the development of the Kingdom in the past 50 years? Are there historical archives available to historians? Cheers.

Khalid al-Dakhil: As far as I know, yes there are efforts along this line. You should contact the Foundation of King Abdul Aziz and the Archives for research about this. My understanding is that they are doing something about this.


Lappeenranta, Finland: For a westerner the role of Saudi women is quite restrictive. This is exemplified by a recent case receiving a lot of play in the Saudi press, i.e. the lady known as Fatima. She was forced into divorce by her brothers and this was upheld in court. The lady is now in jail because she has refused to submit to this verdict. Can you delineate how much of women's roles in the KSA are influenced by Wahhabism as opposed to traditional Arab mores. Saudi Lawyer Takes On Religious Court System (Post, Dec. 23, 2006)

Khalid al-Dakhil: The case of Fatima is a case of discrimination on the basis of descent, or what is called in the legal jargon "kafa'at annasab." It is illegal and runs against the teachings and principles laid out in the Quran. In fact this ruling is based more on old traditional Arab attitudes and values, not on Islamic principles -- but of course for such values to be acceptable and justified they are presented in the cloak of religion. And that shows the big influence of religious thought, and with it the Wahhabi role.


Washington, D.C.: Would you agree with Thomas Friedman's article last week where he said that the U.S. may have more in common culturally with Iran than with Saudi Arabia?

Khalid al-Dakhil: I did not have the chance to read Mr. Friedman's article, and so I don't know what he means by this.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the Saudi writers/intellectuals based outside of Saudi Arabia, such as Mai Yamani, Madawi al-Rasheed and Fahad Nazer, in terms of what they can contribute to reforms in Saudi Arabia?

Khalid al-Dakhil: I think they can contribute a lot to the literature on reform in SA. We just need them to cast their ideas and thought in a liberal and rich perspective.


Washington, D.C.: Khalid al-Dakhil, would you say that Wahhabism and other forms of Islam are compatible with democracy? Why or why not?

Khalid al-Dakhil: This is a tricky question. When you say Wahhabism and Islam, you're talking about the part and the whole at the same time. As I said before, now we have in SA what you might call Muslim or Wahhabi "liberals." Does that mean that Wahhabism can embrace democracy? Maybe. What is certain is that Wahhabism in its original form and content cannot be democratic. Can it evolve in that direction? Well, it could. More important however is to take up the notion of democracy with all its prerequisites, and to see if Wahhabism can accommodate itself to it. We know that there is no democracy without secularism -- maybe there is a room in the Wahhabi political tradition for a prototype secularism. That is if we recall that in traditional Wahhabism there is the clear distinction between the political and the religious in the structure of the state.


London, U.K.: How can one judge or evaluate the support of extremism in Saudi Arabia if there are no public opinion polls in the country? Can we trust the polls that have been done by external companies or agencies?

Khalid al-Dakhil: If these polls were conducted inside SA, and on scientific bases, then we should trust them. Now the fact there are no polls in SA itself, that is a Saudi problem. There is no reason to complain in this case.


Washington, D.C.: Good Morning, and thank you for participating in this chat. I spent many years in Riyadh as a child in the '80s, when my parent worked for a US company there. I have such strong memories of the beautiful desert, of Diriyah, where my school would take us on field trips, and of the souks where I spent so many hours looking around. There were so many vendors who were kind enough to take the time to talk to us little kids who never had more than 20 riyals in our pockets, and a lot of broken Arabic that we used to negotiate what we thought were killer bargains. I left in 1987, and have heard and read that the country has become more conservative than what I remember, and less tolerant of foreigners. Is this true? Do you think any part of Saudi Arabia will ever be open to non-Muslim tourists? I and many of my ex-pat friends would be so happy to visit the places we loved, and introduce friends and spouses to the country that we were so happy in as children.

Khalid al-Dakhil: On the one hand, you're right the country has grown more conservative than what it used to be during the time you were there. At the same time there is a recognition of this and its negative effects, even at the official level. So sure, you can come and reminisce as much as you want. There is a government. agency in the country for tourism.


Washington, D.C.: Osama bin Laden, for better or for worse, is the de facto promoter of Wahhabism to the world's general public. How is this being viewed by the liberal neo-Wahhabis? Is there any public attempt to counter Bin Laden's message?

Khalid al-Dakhil: For one thing, bin Laden is not a Wahhabi -- and the Wahhabi neo-liberals are against bin Laden.


Athens, Ga.: Do you believe that Wahhabism can be tolerant towards other forms of Islam (much less other religions) without rejecting the core teachings of Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab?

Khalid al-Dakhil: Yes, they can. But then again that depends on what you you mean by Wahhabis in this case. As I said, Wahhabism now is not what it used to be in the past. It also depends on what we mean by other Muslims. Do we mean by that the other so-called Sunni Muslims? The Wahhabis, old and new, do differ with these Muslims but at the same time share so much with them that they always have tolerated each other. On the other hand other Muslims, like the Khawarij and the Mu'tazilites, are not tolerated by the Wahhabis.


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Don't you think that the source of Wahhabi ideology (sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulwahab) was very much an adherent of the pure, excellent Islamic teachings and had no catches at all ... yet his followers and those who came afterward added certain restrictions and chains to its practices? Thank you.

Khalid al-Dakhil: No I don't think so. The restrictions you're referring to are in the original teaching of sheikh Ibn Abdul-Wahhab.


London: How can we explain the fact the most Saudi students who are going abroad for education prefer the U.S., not to mention the popularity of western movies among Saudi youth, at the same time be told that Saudi Arabia is conservative society?

Khalid al-Dakhil: Many of the Saudis you're talking about like to enjoy the lifestyle of the West, yet they won't vote for such a style in SA. This a very complicated cultural issue. You may want to know too that there are Saudis trying to bring a film industry to SA. The problem is these are still in the minority. Therefore, yes, the country is conservative, but that does not necessarily mean that people will not enjoy their life. Remember, the majority of Saudis are against women driving, for example.


Columbia, Md.: What strikes me is how much the unifying factor of Wahhabism mirrors the trajectory of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Church leaders sold the ideas of the Crusades as a short-cut to heaven and giving money and support to the Crusaders as almost as good as fighting yourself. I see much of the same themes running through Wahhabi inspired Jihadist and Salafi media.

Perhaps the Crusades began as an attempt to maintain access to the Holy Land for pilgrims, but it grew to justify campaigns of territorial expansion that included the voyages of discovery and conquest in the Americas. Europe's nation-states were unified and became powerful as a result the unifying force of religion and politics. That power supported the art, culture, and science from which we still benefit from today, yet it also inspired the Inquisition and the witch-hunts in Europe and cultural destruction and genocide in the Americas and Africa.

I see the global Jihad movement as an Islamic version of the Crusades and Inquisition combined into one; not only are they trying to remake governments in the image of the "perfect" Islamic-state, they are also trying to remake Islam into a single, "pure" denomination. I know that the West "benefited" from the history of the Crusades and from their Church-enforced unity, but the price was tremendous in human suffering and in corruption of the Church and faith, which continues to roil the present with toxic eruptions from history. How does the Islamic world and the present world reach the "benefits" of a pluralistic, democratically cooperative global society without running the same dark path that the West traveled? All I can see is the global Jihad movement blazing an even darker path.

Khalid al-Dakhil: You may have a point on this, but there is an important difference between the two: The Crusaders controlled the state. The Salafis now are extra-legal organizations. The main concern of the Jihadi-Salafists is to gain access to political power, and to control the state in which they live and operate. As for the Wahhabis of the 19th century, they represented a movement to create a state that was not there. It is in this sense not expansionist, as was the case of the Crusaders of the Middle Ages. The Crusaders were expansionists beyond their European territories. They went as far as the current Middle East, and they used religion to justify their expansionism. Both of course used jihad as a shortcut to heaven, but that does not make them the same.


Hofuf, Saudi Arabia: Last year you were speaking during a cultural event in Riyadh and you were fiercely attacked by a religious man when you described the Shiite minority as a part of Saudi Arabia and that the rest of Saudis should understand and accept that. Do you think this attitude toward Shiites in the Kingdom will ever change? How do you see the future of Saudi Shiites?

Khalid al-Dakhil: There are indications that change is taking place here. I think it will change, although this will take time. The government. should play the leading role to promote such a change. The Shiites in SA are citizens just like everyone there and should be taken as such, but at the same time the Shiites themselves should not behave as Shiites -- they should behave and act as citizens and insist on their rights first and foremost as Saudi citizens, not as Shiites. This does not mean they should abandon their beliefs, but these beliefs should be enriching part of the culture and politics of the whole society. In other words, the Shiites should be promoters of religious diversity in the country.


Athens, Ga.: Can you comment on the role you feel the United States played in creating the modern "Jihadi" phenomenon? How much of a role do you think Afghanistan played in its emergence around the world?

Khalid al-Dakhil: The U.S. has had a big role in the rise of the Jihadi Islam of the 20th century, but the U.S. does not want to recognize that. It is easy to export this problem to other countries, like SA.


Philadelphia: There was some discussion that some of the anti-Israel sentiment expressed by some Wahhabists seemed to be traceable back to anti-Jewish propaganda spread in the Middle East by Nazis and by Christian missionaries. Have you seen any evidence that such links in fact exist?

Khalid al-Dakhil: Now this is far-fetched. No need to go back to the Nazis to be anti-Israeli -- The state of Israel is the the reason and the source of this. Its expansionist, ruthless policies, and its refusal to reach a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians is very disturbing for people of the Arab world, and not only the Wahhabis. The plight of the Palestinians, which has been running now for more than a half-century, mainly is caused by the state of Israel. You don't need to fall back to such a racist ideology to see what is wrong with the state of Israel.


Herndon, Va.: Professor, is it possible to explain simply the differences between Saudi Wahhabism and Syrian Salafism? Are they merely regional variants of the same faith or is there some crucial difference between the two? Have they grown closer since radical elements of both apparently began cooperating with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq?

Khalid al-Dakhil: The Wahhabis are Salafists and so share many things in common with the Syrian Salafis. But the Jihadists that are going to Iraq are not the same as the traditional Wahhabis -- the latter don't believe in the notion of Jihad if it is not declared and sanctioned by the ruler, or as they say, "wali-ul amr." From this it can be said that those who go to Iraq are doing that against the will of the main Salafi establishment, both in SA and Syria. Further, remember, there also are nationalists going to Iraq. Finally, these foreigners are small part of the insurgency in Iraq -- and that is according to the American estimates.


Washington, D.C.: Would it be fair/accurate to compare the conflicts and division in the Middle eastern world today to the division and conflict in Europe centuries ago between Catholics and Protestants? Are the Shiites and Sunnis the Muslim versions of Catholics and Protestants?

Khalid al-Dakhil: In a way that is correct. The Middle East now is dominated by religion, just like what it used to be in Europe of the Middle Ages. In other words, the Middle East can be seen as living in this sense in the Middle Ages. The conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites is very similar to the past conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. You're right.


Khalid al-Dakhil: I think our exchange here has already run for almost two hours. I'm pleased to have had this opportunity to chat with such educated readers, who threw very intelligent questions and comments at me. My thanks goes to you all, and especially to The Washington Post and Chris Hopkins, the producers of this chat. Take care, and goodbye.


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