Liberation, Not Containment
by Stephen Schwartz
To win a war, you must first identify the enemy. In our current war, the enemy's name is Wahhabism.
The Wahhabis, based in Saudi Arabia, are the extremist sect that provides religious support for the horrors inflicted by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists. Wahhabism emerged in the benighted wastes of Nejd in central Arabia in the middle of the 18th century. Other religions had already experienced bouts of revivalist utopianism, but by the time Wahhabism emerged, these other movements had already been redirected into socially constructive paths: The apocalyptic frenzies that gripped Christendom from the time of St. Francis had been reformulated, through Protestantism, into the intellectual and economic revolutions of the European bourgeoisie. And Judaism had passed through a similar revitalization, embodied in the kabbalistic radicalism of the 17th-century "false messiah" Sabbatai Zevi; the Sabbataean heresy, too, had been redirected into a modernizing, Enlightenment trend.
Wahhabism might at first seem utterly different from these parallel phenomena. Protestantism, after all, became the state faith of the British Empire; and neo-Sabbataeanism led to the assimilation of Jews into Christian Germany and Poland. Both of these outcomes grew out of geopolitical opportunities-chiefly, the expansion of trade, or what today would be called globalization. Protestantism led the English, and assimilation drove the Jews, to new worlds in every sense, to encounters with realities previously unknown to them.
No such opening, however, was available to the shepherds and camel drivers of Nejd. Wahhabism "reformed" and "revived" Islam not by opening to the world, but by turning deeply inward, becoming narrow, rigid, literalistic, and puritanical-before finally exploding into a violent challenge against the Islamic civilization of the Ottomans. The Wahhabis' anti-Ottomanism resembled the Protestant rebellion against the papacy, and some observers have seen in it an explicit emulation of the Christian Reformation. But then something strange happened to Wahhabism: It leaped far ahead in the process of the politicization of faith to anticipate the coming of totalitarianism. Before Jacobinism, Leninism, fascism, Stalinism, Japanese militarism, and Hitlerism, there was Wahhabism. It was as if the Arabs of Nejd were so far behind the rest of the world that they were ahead of it.
We too often forget that all of the totalitarian threats to the global democratic consensus emerged from nations lagging in their development, and represented attempted short cuts to economic and geopolitical power. Russia, coming late to a modern economy, tried to rush ahead by fabricating the socialist "new man"; Italy and Germany, slow in their national unification and delayed in the competition for colonies, produced fascism; Japan, closed to the world until the mid 19th century, launched itself into the brutal subjugation of the Asian mainland.
If these countries were handicapped in their modernization, Nejd was apparently retarded beyond remedy, and the Wahhabis did not attempt a serious assault beyond the Arabian peninsula until centuries had passed. But then another strange thing happened: Arabian oil became a key factor in global economics, and-for Wahhabism-an asset comparable to Hitler's military industries. Imagine Microsoft headed by a president of the United States-who also happens to be a follower of David Koresh-and you will have an idea of Wahhabism's material base.
But the Wahhabis' interests are not economic, and do not involve intervention in the petroleum markets; they are ideological and religious (rather than secular and nationalistic). Like Nazism, Wahhabism is separatist and supremacist. It argues for a world in which saved, purified Muslims will have no contact with Christians, Jews, and non-Wahhabi Muslim "unbelievers." Prior to the stabilization of the Saudi regime in the 1930s, Wahhabism-like Italian fascism-drafted the nation's young men into a militia living in disciplined colonies and drilled in hatred and sadism toward alleged foes. Like Soviet Communism, it recruits cadres worldwide. And like Japanese militarism, it is utterly ruthless.
All of these earlier threats had in common their leaders' conviction of a superiority permitting them to dictate to the whole human race. That is why the West had to destroy Hitlerism: because Hitler made up his own rules (in dealing with the Jews, the rest of Europe, and international law). The Italians did the same in despoiling Ethiopia, and the Japanese in massacring millions of Koreans and Chinese. Resisting such forces is the backbone of U.S. foreign policy: It motivated Truman's stand on Berlin, and Kennedy's on the Cuban missiles, as well as Reagan's support for the Nicaraguan contras and, yes, the Afghan mujahedin.
It's true that the war against bin Ladenite terror-that is to say, the anti-Wahhabi war-is no more about Islam per se than the war on Hitler was about Nietzsche, or the Cold War was about socialist economics. But the war on Hitler was fought in Germany, and the Cold War was fought against Communists: The war against terrorism, too, must be fought where the enemy is, and that means the Islamic countries. Wahhabism has declared a war to the death against us, as the Nazis and Communists did. And we must fight Wahhabism to the death, to secure not only our survival but that of Islam itself as a great religion and civilization. Bin Laden and his Saudi backers threaten to bring the world of Islam crashing down in flames as Hitler did Berlin. But just as we liberated the Germans from Hitler and the Japanese from Tojo, we can liberate the world's Muslims from bin Laden and his Saudi accomplices. Bombing the Taliban and other extremists will no more destroy Islam than the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed Japanese culture.
Of course, there is a short-term alternative: containment. The Saudi ruling family, the Sauds, repressed the Wahhabis' Ikhwan military brotherhood in the 1930s, and-if it were demanded of them-they would probably do it again; they would cut off funding for such groups worldwide, and more effectively restrict their influence inside Saudi Arabia. But this would be a temporary solution analogous to accepting an imperial Japan after World War II, a Japan in which the militarist generals were deposed but left unpunished. The Sauds repressed the Ikhwan, but later resorted anew to Wahhabism as a geopolitical weapon; for the West, that is simply an unacceptable prospect. Wahhabism must go.
And the way to get rid of it is to work with the millions of anti-Wahhabi Muslims. Here, too, the analogies with 20th-century totalitarianism offer cause for optimism. Hitler claimed to fight for Europe against the Bolsheviks and the Anglo-American Jewish plutocrats, but Europe did not support him; most countries produced armed resistance movements against Nazi occupation. The Japanese militarists appealed for Asian support against the Americans in the Philippines, and against the British in Malaya and Burma; but Japanese occupation turned the Filipinos and Burmese against Tokyo, and when Douglas MacArthur returned to Manila he was hailed as a liberator. In the end MacArthur was also hailed as a liberator in Tokyo, and the Germans turned to Truman, not to some Nazi straggler, to hold the line against the Russians in Berlin.
Our task now is comparable to that which faced the World War II generation. We will have to fight Wahhabi terrorism-bin Laden, his Egyptian and Algerian allies, his stooges elsewhere in the Islamic countries, his backers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and Wahhabized fringe groups like the Taliban and Hezbollah-with the faith and firmness we drew on in beating the Nazis. And as part of that commitment we should directly and actively assist the millions of anti-Wahhabi Muslims.
Our action against Wahhabism should begin with a series of ultimatums to the Saudis. The first demand ought to be full and immediate compliance with airline-security, banking, and other antiterrorist measures the Saudis have flouted. The second: the full investigation, arrest, and handing over to the U.S. of all active coconspirators with bin Laden found in Saudi Arabia. The third: an immediate stop to all funding of overseas Wahhabism, including Wahhabi imams and interest groups in the U.S. These three actions would provide more valuable support to our antiterrorist effort than would any direct military assistance. If compliance is not immediate and total, we should freeze all Saudi assets in the U.S.
If the world is to be made safe from terrorism, Wahhabism must suffer a definitive, irreversible historic defeat. Liberation, not containment: Only in a world where Wahhabism has been crushed can we hope for the survival of world peace, and of a legitimate, peaceful Islam.
Related Topics: Sephardic Judaism, September 11, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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