Wahhabis or "Salafis"?
by Stephen Schwartz
WHEN THE DEFINITIVE HISTORY of the global war against Islamist extremism is written, it may well be recorded that one of the psychological victories by al Qaeda and its Saudi financiers and commanders was to convince Western governments and media that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Sunni sect that is the state religion in the desert kingdom, should not be mentioned by its name.
After September 11, 2001, Islamist adherents on our shores first denied that Wahhabism existed. There was, they insisted, just Islam. Excision of the W-word from Western discourse was a serious hit. Instead, Westerners were told that, in the words of a Der Spiegel writer, Bernhard Zand, the Saudi-backed extremists are "called Wahhabis by outsiders" and "describe themselves as Salafis."
This later led to further comical nonsense as Western commentators split hairs over whether to call the Sunni terrorists in Iraq "Salafi jihadists."
What's the difference?
First, Wahhabis are known as Wahhabis to most Muslims, including numerous Wahhabis themselves. But because of the Wahhabi history of attacks on non-Wahhabi Muslims, the term "Wahhabi" repels many Muslims. Wahhabis therefore often attempt to recast themselves as "Salafis" for the same reason Communists called themselves "progressives." Americans hated the word "Communist" because of the crimes of the Soviet regime, but associated "progressive" with honorable reformers like Theodore Roosevelt.
"Salafi" is, similarly, a respectable term referring to the original generations of pious Muslim scholars who emerged during and after Muhammad's death--and then to a group of 19th century Islamic reformers who wanted to simplify and modernize their religion. But while the "Salafis" 150 years ago execrated the spiritual Sufis, they did not preach violence.
Although they prefer the "Salafi" cover, Wahhabis throughout the Muslim world refer to themselves by that name when the doctrines of their inspirer are challenged, just as Communists flaunted their affiliations in their own milieu. Still, many Western commentators have adopted the habit of identifying Wahhabis by a palliative name in an effort to be "sensitive."
The Sunni terrorists in Iraq have worked even more linguistic magic on Western media, who have assigned them the title of "insurgents." But too much blood has been shed for Westerners to continue flattering Muslim extremists in this manner.
The Sunni murderers in Iraq are terrorists, not insurgents.
And they are Wahhabis, backed by Saudi Arabia, not pious "Salafis."
As George Orwell knew, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their real names.