Wahhabism, Terrorism, Islam
1. THE TWO FACES OF ISLAM is your masterpiece. I never read any book that deals with the history and present character of Wahhabism so deeply, aside from it. What lead you to write such a book?
Thank you for your high compliments, which I treasure.
I became aware of the negative role of Wahhabism in present-day Islam during the Bosnian war, with the interference of Wahhabi "mujahidin" who came to Bosnia and did not contribute properly to the Bosnian struggle but did attempt to impose their deviant interpretation on the Balkan Muslims. I read everything then available in Muslim sources on Wahhabism and when I went to live in Bosnia was prepared to confront it.
When I came back from the Balkans, the events of September 11, 2001, and the involvement of Saudi subjects in the terrorist atrocities of that day, made my knowledge of Wahhabism suddenly relevant.
I had intended to write a book on Islam, and, with no warning, a specific topic – Wahhabi radicalism – was thrust upon me. I took up the challenge, but all such abilities are gifts from Allah subhanawata'ala, so finally must say I wrote the book because I was guided to do so. I was presented with a task, and did my best to fulfill it, and, alhamdulillah, have been rewarded for it in this life. It is perhaps a matter worthy of irony that when I was writing The Two Faces of Islam some of my non-Muslim colleagues were surprised when I said I was writing the book more for Muslims than non-Muslims. They presumed that Muslims would not read my book. But my book has had a greater impact in the Muslim countries than in the West, which is very gratifying to me.
2. How was your book accepted in the west? Especially since you revealed the things that nobody previously published about the dual face of Wahhabism?
My book was well-accepted in the West because after September 11 Westerners were desperate to learn about Saudi radicalism. Western readers understood that the moment could no longer be delayed when the deceit of the Saudi-Wahhabis would be revealed and examined. My book has only been treated negatively by Wahhabis and those interested in protecting them.
3. In your book the chapter 'Permanent Jihad: The Shadow of Afghanistan,' narrating the Wahhabi infiltration of Afghanistan, attracted me a lot. What were the tragic effects of Taliban imposition over traditional Islam in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan became the breeding ground for three of the major problems troubling Muslims today.
First, it provided an example of the exportation of Wahhabi-style radicalism to a country that had never before experienced extreme fundamentalism, and this encouraged Wahhabis and similar radicals to a similar course in the Balkans, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Second, Taliban governance has become synonymous with arbitrary, gratuitous cruelty in the name of Islam, and has damaged the image of our faith.
Third, the alliance of the Afghan Taliban with radicals in Pakistan has become the single greatest danger to the peace of the whole world. We must face the very real possibility that a Taliban reoccupation of Kabul will lead to the failure of Pakistan and establishment of an openly radical state there – an extremist state armed with nuclear weapons. The collapse of Pakistan would also create a massive humanitarian disaster in South Asia, as well as encouraging Islamist radicals in India and Bangladesh.
Contrary to the propaganda of the Pakistani ruling cliques and self-deluded Westerners, there is no "moderate Taliban" with whom a peace agreement may be reached. The Taliban must be defeated, and seen to be defeated.
4. Wahhabism impels global terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. What is the reason behind calling them 'Islamic terrorists' instead of Wahhabi terrorists?
Terrorists acting in the name of Islam are called "Islamic" for the same reason that radicals acting in the name of Judaism are called "Jewish terrorists" and Catholic and Protestant radicals in Northern Ireland are called "Catholic terrorists" and "Protestant terrorists." Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka were referred to in media as "Hindu," the violently repressive Sri Lankan Sinhalese regime was described as "Buddhist," and the Sikhs who opposed the Indian government of Indira Gandhi were called "Sikh radicals." Media treat all these phenomena on their own terms. One could hardly imagine that given the long effort of the Saudis to identify themselves and Wahhabism with Islam, that their terrorist crimes would not be labeled "Islamic."
I appreciate the feelings of those Muslims who, like me, argue that terrorism is un-Islamic, but to change the habits of the global media we must educate the world about moderate, traditional, and spiritual Islam.
Having worked as a reporter, I do not criticize my colleagues for their crude approach to these issues: they are "first responders," like police, fire, or emergency medical personnel. When we have educated the public about the reality of moderate, traditional, and spiritual Islam, we will no longer face this, and many other problems. As is said in his generous Book: "God does not change the condition of a people until they change themselves." (Q 13:11)
5. In truth, isn't it America that encouraged Bin Laden and the Taliban by importing money and weapons? Afterward, what were the causes that motivated America to hate them?
This is not true. America sent money and weapons via Pakistan to the Afghan anti-Russian resistance from 1979, when the Russians occupied the country, until the Russian withdrawal in 1991. The Taliban did not seize control of Afghanistan until 1996, at which time Bin Laden moved Al-Qaeda there from Sudan. Bin Laden had been involved in the earlier Afghan struggle, but was neither prominent nor influential in it.
If America was faulty in its treatment of Afghanistan, its error consisted in ignoring the involvement of Saudi and Pakistani extremists in the Afghan resistance movement. But the primary blame belongs in Riyadh and Islamabad, not Washington.
After September 11 the U.S. had no alternative but to defend itself and global civilization against Al-Qaeda and its allies.
6. A new development is the intellectual penetration of the Wahhabis in the Muslim communities of Europe. What is their impact in Europe?
The main Western European country affected by Wahhabi and related jihadist agitation is Britain. The UK is now the frontline of the Western nations in the combat between radical Islam, on one hand, and the established political authorities, as well as the moderate, traditional, and spiritual Muslims, on the other. The Center for Islamic Pluralism estimates that 70 percent of South Asian Muslims in Britain are adherents to Barelvi traditionalism, and 30 percent to Wahhabi, Deobandi, and Pakistani jamaati (Mawdudist) extremism. The confrontation is very serious and the UK governments have failed to treat it with appropriate gravity. UK governments have resembled a cobra's victim, passive in the face of a deadly threat.
France has not been significantly affected by jihadism because its Muslim leadership is strictly moderate, traditional, and spiritual. In Germany, Turkish and Kurdish Muslims have been kept away from the radicals by the influence of the Turkish government, which controls mosques on German territory. We will see whether the consolidation of a radical Islamist government in Ankara, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will change the character of Turkish and Kurdish Islam in Germany. I hope it will not.
Even the Netherlands, which has experienced a turbulent debate over Islam, has not had to contend with radical domination of the Muslim communities.
It is considered politically incorrect to say it, but we in CIP repeat frequently: Britain has this problem because Pakistan has this problem. British Muslims are of South Asian heritage in their majority. Pakistani Sunnis in the U.S. are also dominated by radicals. Muslims in France, Germany, and the Netherlands are North African and Turkish or Kurdish. In the absence of large Pakistani contingents, they do not face widespread radical agitation.
Russia represents a country where the status of Islam is extremely complex. I will describe the Balkan Muslim communities below.
7. What have you observed in the Wahhabi invasion of Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Chechnya?
Wahhabi "volunteers" came to Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1992-95 war, but they did not affect the outcome of any battles. They committed abominable atrocities. After the war, they flooded into Bosnia-Hercegovina with the illegitimate aim of forcing Bosnians to "renew" their Islam by accepting the insane Wahhabi prohibitions against mawlid, prayers to saints, maintenance of tombs, and popular Sufi observances. The mass of Bosnian and other Balkan Muslims despise the Wahhabis and will not accept their dictation. But Wahhabi, Muslim Brotherhood, and other radicals have used their money to corrupt the Bosnian Islamic leadership, with very negative consequences. The Bosnian supreme ulema are now viewed by ordinary believers as gangsters and enemies of the Muslims.
The Wahhabis were prevented by the Kosovar Albanians from becoming involved in the 1998-99 Kosovo war, but again, as in Bosnia-Hercegovina, they arrived in the country after the war and have attempted to radicalize the Muslims there. This attempt has not succeeded for two reasons: Albanian Muslims include a large and active Sufi movement, and Albanians love America, which rescued them more than once.
Albania has a somewhat admirable but also somewhat problematical chaos in its publishing industry, and a considerable quantity of Wahhabi and other jihadist literature is distributed from there. Wahhabis have also taken control of some mosques. But in all the Albanian lands, Sufism is widely-organized and serves as a strong barrier against deviant infiltration.
In Chechnya, the righteous struggle of the local Muslims against Russian imperialism, linked to conflicts in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and other Caucasian Muslim regions, has been subverted by Wahhabi money. I accuse the Wahhabis of cooperating with the Russian secret police in their diversionary practices in the Caucasus. It is seldom mentioned that the Wahhabis only became a serious problem in Chechnya after 1998, when they were kept out of Kosovo. They already had money and some rag-tag, low-life "mujahidin" that sought a new field of mischief, and since they could not enter Kosovo, went to Chechnya.
8. Saudi Arabia gives all kinds of support to Wahhabi infiltration. In spite of this, why does America maintains a good relationship with the Saudis?
Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah no longer provides unquestioning support for the global Wahhabi da'wa. Al-Qaeda cadres have been "deported" from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. We therefore cannot deny that Saudi Arabia has improved its conduct. In addition, we in CIP believe in the reform course pursued by King Abdullah.
At the same time, I would point out that since September 11, I have always argued that the problem of U.S.-Saudi relations cannot be solved easily. The Saudi kingdom is a major American ally. American energy interests have a significant stake in Saudi oil production. The U.S. cannot simply cut off relations with the Saudi kingdom; nor can it openly pressure the Saudis to disestablish Wahhabism as their state religion.
The Saudis resemble the Pakistanis in that although their conduct toward the U.S. has been bad, the U.S. cannot easily take its distance from them. On the other hand, there are significant differences between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan does not have a figure like King Abdullah who can lead a reform program, and unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is nuclear-armed. For me the most important contrast is that Saudis were genuinely shocked by the global reaction to their involvement in the September 11 attacks and admit that they must find ways to change. Pakistan refuses to admit it has a problem, much less that it must change. But although Pakistan can blackmail the world with its nuclear weapons, it does not have the economic weapon of oil production. Pakistan does, nevertheless, count on support from the Chinese Communist dictatorship.
9. Really, Islamic modernists themselves created divergences from Islamic civilization like Wahhabism. What is your opinion of Islamic modernists originating from Egypt under the leadership of Jamaludeen Al-Afghani, Muhammah Abduh, and Rashid Rida?
I disagree with some elements in the modernism of Al-Afghani, Abduh, and Rida – especially the last, who became a Wahhabi. They were incorrect in their hostility to tradition, as embodied in their criticism of Sufis. But they were honorable men, not terrorists, they were not irrationally anti-Western, and they did not practice takfir, or denial of the Islam of those with whom they disagreed. They were worthy adversaries whose works we should study and contest.
10. Isn't the enhanced consideration to science and rationalism, ignoring the spiritual aspects of religion, a great fault of the modernists?
The modernists are wrong, in my view and that of many (but not all) of us in CIP, in supporting modernism and secularism excessively, and denying the importance of spirituality in religion. Most of us see Sufism as a better solution to the undeniable problems of the Muslims today than unquestioning acceptance of modernism and secularism. But the modernists, if they are not violent and do not engage in takfir are, to emphasize, Muslims with whom we can engage, argue, and cooperate against the common enemy: radicalism.
11. What is your view of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, in promoting Islamic politics?
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) are two takfiri movements that provided the Saudi Wahhabis with resources to expand their influence, but these groups, although they remain allied in their demands for a so-called "Islamic state," are not identical.
The MB has undergone a sociological evolution in which it is now based in the rising entrepreneurial and professional classes, like its ally, the AKP or Justice and Development Party of Erdogan in Turkey. The future of the MB and AKP cannot be easily predicted. The MB must now contend with the rise of Wahhabi (so-called "Salafi") agitators who challenge the MB for insufficient radicalism.
In contrast with the MB, the JI has become more, rather than less radical in its attitude and tactics. It remains an accomplice to mass murder in South Asia.
All these groups represent, in various ways, forms of "modernism" and claims to "reform" of Islam. I believe Muslim societies require social reform, but I do not believe the religion of Islam is in need of reform. Islam can support progressive and prosperous societies no less than Catholicism does.
12. Ibn Taymiyya is a person recognized by Wahhabism, by Islamic modernism and by the Muslim Brotherhood as their forerunner. What are the tragic effects that the world has undergone because of his wrong thinking?
The main deviations fostered by Ibn Taymiyya are takfir against Muslim rulers who do not govern according to exclusive, shariah-based jurisprudence, and against the Sufism of shaykh ul-aqbar, Ibn ul-Arabi. Both of these postures by Ibn Taymiyya were dismissed as absurd in his own time but have been revived by Wahhabis and their imitators. Their effects are disastrous.
13. What is your view about Wahhabi actions in India?
India is clearly a target of aggression by Wahhabis, Deobandis, and jamaatis based in Pakistan. Indian Muslims must mobilize to repel the Wahhabi campaign to corrupt Islamic institutions, as well as to inflict terror, in India.
Radicals in Pakistani governing circles, and especially in its military, have used Kashmir as a pretext – as well as a rear-guard support and training theatre – for terrorism. This problem requires more attention.
14. You opposed Dr. Zakir Naik strongly in your interview with Mahesh Prabhu. What do you see as the faulty actions of Zakir Naik?
The Center for Islamic Pluralism believes that notwithstanding his clever rhetoric, Zakir Naik is a dangerous hate-preacher. We support the decisions against him by the Indian ulema and the rulings of the British and Canadian governments banning his entry into their countries. His opinions in support of Al-Qaeda and accusation that President George W. Bush was responsible for the September 11 attacks are unacceptable.
15. You compare Wahhabism with Stalinism, Nazism and Fascism. Why do you say so?
Wahhabism has several features in common with 20th century forms of political totalitarianism. Like Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism it is based on nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed – in the Wahhabi case, "the Islam of the Prophet" – in that of fascism, the Roman Empire, like the pagan Nordic culture in Nazism, and, more subtly, the belief in a "lost paradise" combining pre-capitalism, traditional Slavic rural collectivism, and Russian imperial power under Stalinism. Like these movements, Wahhabism organizes itself in elite, aggressive groups that commit acts of terror and other forms of violence and compulsion against those it has identified as targets. Shias, Sufis, and non-Muslims are attacked by hard-core Wahhabis, Deobandis, and jamaatis in the same way that socialists and other leftist proletarians were assaulted by Mussolini's bandits, Jews and others by the Nazis, and "bourgeois," "kulak," intellectual, Jewish, "Menshevik," and "Trotskyist" dissenters, often only alleged to be so, by Stalinism.
The great paradox in comparing Wahhabism with Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism is that Wahhabism came into existence in a remote, unknown corner of the world – central Arabia – some two hundred years before these forms of totalitarianism appeared in Europe, and yet anticipated the essentials of fascist and Stalinist ideology. In addition, we should note that Wahhabism, unlike Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, always comprised a wing that cooperated with Western imperialism – first the British, then the U.S. And we must recognize that Wahhabism today, unlike fascism and Stalinism, is neither defeated, nor dead, nor even moribund. We in CIP believe the Saudi people want the end of the Wahhabi monopoly on religious life in the kingdom. But Wahhabism is by no means close to global defeat. Saudi Arabia, even with the reforms of King Abdullah, has far to go to reach the position of Poland in 1989.
16. What is your view about the new Arab revolutions? Especially that in Egypt?
The new Arab, or, better, Muslim "spring" – because Iran is a major element in the broad panorama of social change in Muslim societies – is a source of great hope for Muslims everywhere. I share in this enthusiasm and optimism. But I do not consider Egypt to be pivotal. The short idyll of peaceful change in Egypt has given way to civil war in Libya and brutal repression in Syria.
I believe the decision-making countries in the Islamic ummah remain Saudi Arabia and Iran. The "Muslim Spring" will succeed if it brings an end to the un-Islamic dictatorship of the clerics in Tehran and encourages deeper and broader social change in Saudi Arabia. By itself, Egypt can no more influence such a colossal transformation, linking many countries with diverse histories, than the Egypt of Gamal Abd Al-Nasr could, beginning in the 1950s. Iran can end the cycle of radical Islam and Saudi Arabia can become a center of emulation for all Sunnis. I do not think Egypt, with its very particular historical and cultural paradigms, can do so.
I and others in CIP are also very concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood, about which we already had worries, is being pushed aside in Egypt by more radical Wahhabis, who falsely call themselves "Salafis."
17. THE OTHER ISLAM is your book about Islam's spiritual form – Sufism. What would you say about that book?
THE OTHER ISLAM embodied my desire to provide a fuller picture of the alternative to radical Islam while contributing to the large Western academic literature on Sufism. In respect of the latter I was especially concerned to introduce new material, previously neglected by secular scholars, on the heterodox forms of Sufism represented by the Bektashis in the Albanian lands and the Alevi-Bektashis among Turks and Kurds.
Unfortunately THE OTHER ISLAM was published just as the American publishing market collapsed. It therefore did not receive the attention I believe it deserved. I also regret that I left out a more thorough discussion of Indian Sufism – because I had yet to experience much about it, and all my writings on Islam are based on my own experience – of the role of Sufism in Barelvi Islam, and on the very interesting and inspiring Iranian Kurdish Sufi movement, the Ahl-e Haqq or "People of Truth."
18. When I interviewed Kamran Pasha I understood the influence of Sufi-oriented thought in Europe. How has Sufism influenced Europe and America?
Sufism has influenced American intellectual and spiritual life since the middle of the 19th century when it was studied by the great "transcendentalist" authors, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later, our national poet, Walt Whitman, was influenced by Sufism.
Today, America reads Sufi literature – in the form of translations of Jalal'ad'din Rumi, who is said to be the most widely-sold poet in the country. Sadly, most Sufi influence in the West is limited to "New Age" seekers – the "shoppers for God" – who adopt Sufism as a kind of mystical hobby, but who do not study Islam or become Muslim.
I believe that to be a real Sufi one must be a Muslim, although Sufis are and should be open to cooperation with spiritual protagonists among the other religions. Sufis and Jewish Kabbalists have much in common, although the Kabbalists have been luckier than the Sufis in that Kabbalah has been adopted as the mainstream theological trend in Judaism. Similarly, in Catholic teaching, Sufi-influenced personalities like Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as well as the great Catalan philosopher, blessed Raimon Llull, are established as authorities. Sufism is still a stranger among strangers in Islam. In this way, to a great extent, Sufism represents the distillation of Islam, the unencumbered heart of the religion. I am not sure if we need for Sufism to become dominant in Islam; the effect might be to compromise and corrupt the Sufi principles of autonomy and even of rebellion, withdrawal from the world, and silence.
19. You are the founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. What are the aims and actions of this movement?
The aims of the Center for Islamic Pluralism are those presented in our Mission Statement:
The Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) is a think tank that challenges the dominance of American Muslim life by militant Islamist groups. Specifically, our mission is to:
· Foster, develop, defend, protect, and further mobilize moderate American Muslims in their progress toward integration as an equal and respected religious community in the American interfaith environment;
· Define the future of Islam in America as a community opposed to the politicization of our religion, its radicalization, and its marginalization, which has taken place because of the imposition on Muslims of attitudes opposed to American values, traditions, and policies;
· Educate the broader American public about the reality of moderate Islam and the threat to moderate Muslims and non-Muslim Americans represented by militant, political, radical, and adversarial tendencies.
I would add two points to this. First, our actions are visible to anybody who consults our websites, www.islamicpluralism.org, www.islamicpluralism.eu, and www.islamicpluralism.de. We have published several reports and numerous other documents that are accessible as free downloads on these sites.
Second, CIP now has groups and correspondents in 24 countries, most of them Muslim-majority lands, and including Saudi Arabia.
20. Is there any threat to you from Wahhabism because you write and speak against them?
I do not feel threatened or endangered by Wahhabis. Saudi Arabia wants to maintain good relations with the U.S. and I am not concerned that Wahhabis would try to harm me. And finally, my life is in the hands of Allah subhanawata'ala, and I feel sakinah – tranquility in the face of conflict. That does not, however, mean that I am foolhardy or arrogant. I take reasonable precautions to protect myself and my colleagues.