Arabia's Royal Family Must Choose
by Stephen Schwartz
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the ongoing military action against the Taliban regime and its puppet master, Osama bin Laden, was the absence of Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Arab coalition in general, from major involvement in the effort. For the Saudis are the primary sponsors of precisely the brand of fundamentalist Islam that animates bin Laden and the Taliban regime that protects him.
For years, Saudi Arabia has pursued a Janus-faced foreign policy. It has played along with the U.S. when it has suited its interest -- economically, when oil payments were involved, and militarily, when it needed us to save Kuwait from Saddam. At the same time, however, Saudi religious institutions and a powerful element within the Saudi state have created the environment in which bin Laden found recruits, thereby contributing to the problem we have today.
With U.S. President George W. Bush insisting that "you are either with us or you are with the terrorists," it's time the House of Saud made its choice. When President Bush and other Western leaders repeatedly assured their publics that terrorism is at odds with true Islam, and were echoed by Islamic scholars in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries, they were right and wrong.
The violent, nihilistic strain of Islam that encourages bin Laden and his followers represents neither a majority of Muslims nor traditional Islamic values. But this is also not a matter of a simple hijacking of the faith. Saudi Arabia is the richest and most powerful of all the Muslim nations, and the Saudis have used their vast oil income and their control of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, to promote an extremist form of Islam world-wide.
This mode of behavior originates in the Saudi-backed ultra-puritanical sect known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism is named for an 18th-century Arabian Muslim, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who formed a partnership with the Saud family. The official ideology of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism is distinctive in recent Islamic history for its approval of violence against Muslims who reject fundamentalism, as well as against non-Muslim children, civilians, and noncombatants when Muslims wage war against non-Muslims. Both of these concepts were traditionally forbidden in Islam.
Western governments and media have been hesitant to recognize these realities. Yet the trail of evidence for the September 11 atrocities repeatedly leads back to the Saudis and Wahhabism. When the last will of Muhammad Atta, leader of the hijacking team, was published, the text was replete with Wahhabi rhetoric. For example, the will called on mourners to refrain from ostentatious expressions of sorrow, such as weeping, crying out, or rending garments, which Atta rejected as "ignorant" practices. As Muslim religious leader and professor of religious studies in the U.S., Abdul-Aziz Sachedina, pointed out, "this is a Saudi Wahhabi connection . . . They are the ones who tell other Muslims not to show their emotions."
There is more such evidence, but much of it has remained unelucidated. Major Saudi charities including the International Islamic Relief Organization employed some participants in the hijacking conspiracy, but the IIRO and similar groups were left off the list of terror backers put forward by the U.S. authorities, reportedly to save the Saudi family embarrassment. Several of the conspirators themselves were apparently Saudi citizens. Although bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia, was expelled from his native land and stripped of his citizenship, it has long been clear that he continues to enjoy significant support from the country's elite.
Saudi actions against bin Laden were cosmetic. From the fairly successful effort of the Saudis to obstruct a full investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, in which 19 American service personnel were killed, to their reluctance to allow the use of U.S. airbases on their territory for actions against bin Laden and the Taliban, the Saudis have followed a pattern established generations ago.
During World War I, the Saud family took British money on the promise they would rise against the Ottomans, but chose to hold back from fighting and consolidate the Wahhabi hold over the Arabian peninsula once the most famous of several Arab revolts against the Turks began in 1916. Among the most contemptible aspects of bin Laden's perversion of Islam is his demand that Saudi Arabia drive out "infidel" U.S. soldiers, when the Saudi regime, without which bin Laden would never have been heard of, has always depended on foreign support.
The Saudi state subsidizes Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, from Morocco to Malaysia, training imams, building mosques, and recruiting combatants for terrorist adventures in places like Chechnya and Uzbekistan. This is all old news to Muslims. In 1993, Egyptian media revealed that terrorists from that country had gained financial and military support from the Saudis, including Prince Turki bin Faisal, head of the Saudi intelligence service, who was abruptly fired only a few weeks ago.
An obscure academic paper by a Saudi student at Harvard, Nawaf Obaid, revealed links between the Saudi religious bureaucracy and the Taliban, noting that the Saudi religious police created a comparable body in Afghanistan. It was this Saudi-trained police force that drove women out of public view in Afghanistan. Worse, Mr. Obaid's study indicated that the Khobar Towers attack was rooted in "the mainstream Wahhabi sect."
Incredibly, the Saudi Wahhabi network is especially active among American Muslims. Through one of its main front groups, the Islamic Society of North America, the Saudi regime and its religious network influence a majority of mosques in the U.S. -- to the point where they may determine the tone and content of sermons delivered at the weekly assembly or juma prayers on Friday. At times the Friday sermon or khutba has been faxed to American mosques from Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The same habits are visible throughout Europe.
It will not be easy for the West to force the Saudis to cease pursuing this two-faced tactic. Clearly, it is most important in the short term to begin a dialogue with non-Wahhabi, traditional Muslims. Uzbekistan, which has replaced the hypocritical Arab states in the military effort against bin Laden and the Taliban, represents an obvious case in point. The Uzbeks have every reason to be proud of their Islamic culture and traditions; Central Asia produced, historically, some of the greatest achievements in Muslim philosophy, science, mathematics, theology, and spirituality.
But that country, a dictatorship, is threatened by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a classic Wahhabi terror group. With Western help, Muslim societies uncorrupted by Wahhabism, like Uzbekistan, may resume their historic roles as leaders of the Islamic world. It's time to stop appeasing the Saudis, and to find new and better Muslim friends.