Connecting the dots between terrorism and the spread of hardliners

“The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis spread extremism globally” by Terence Ward

Mind map of the Wahhabi sect, taken from the book

Imagine for a moment, a scenario where a gang of radical thugs living in a desert proceeded to raid the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, kill hundreds of its citizens, eventually destroy 98% of its rich historical sites, and turn the center of Islam from a cosmopolitan and high tolerance society into the epicentrum of their radical views.

Meanwhile, thanks to unbelievable luck they strike the largest oil reserves in the world under their occupied lands, and they get to use the petro-dollar to buy their ways into a massive PR campaign and billions of dollar worth of funding worldwide to spread their radical interpretation as the only true path, ignoring (nay, destroying) the 1400 years of evolution that had previously made Islam as an advanced, sophisticated, and diverse religion. Any competing views get demonised, and any protests are labeled apostasy of Islam since they control the two holy cities (and hence becomes the de facto emperor of Islam).

This, in essence, is Wahhabism in a nutshell.

This book tells the comprehensive history of Wahhabism that began with Muhammad Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), whom founded the puritanical sect that bears his name. As the author, Terence Ward, says, Wahhab “stressed the absolute sovereignty of God , tawhid or “God’s unity,” and rejected any veneration of saints, holy figures, or even the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH].” With this thinking he began to evangelizes the Arabian Peninsula during the eighteenth century where he calls for a return to the “purity” of the Salaf, the practices of the first generation of Muslims in the year 622.

By contrast, before the Wahhabi revolution Islam had experienced more than a thousand years of evolution that have produced the Golden Age of Islam, with all the scientific discoveries, healthy intellectual debates among different schools of thoughts, equality and prosperity across the Muslim World from Cordoba to Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus to Samarkand. Even the holy city of Mecca, the book remarks, used to be the center of the Sufi universe, “where music, dance, and ecstatic prayer celebrated the divine and faithful gathered at shrines and graves of saints.”

But this were all changed after World War 1. When the great war first broke out British agents encouraged Arab revolts from within the Ottoman Empire (its opponent in the war) including Ibn Saud (1875-1953) whom joint forces with the descendants of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab to conquer the lands in Arabia (historically the insignificant backyard of the Ottoman Empire, before the discovery of oil). An Anglo-Saud friendship treaty was soon signed, and the treaty insisted that Ibn Saud respect Britain’s Gulf protectorates (Qatar, Kuwait, and the Emirates) but it conveniently neglected to mention about the Sharifate of Mecca to the west. Hence, with Britain’s blessing, Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi ally were left free to attack, occupy, and plunder the Holy City.

Mecca and Medina were at the time protected by Sharif Hussein bin Ali, heir of the Hashemite family that had ruled Mecca and Medina for 700 years and 37 generations. And true to the Arab revolt, Sharif Hussein had also allied with Britain and proclaimed the great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman thanks to the persuasion of Lawrence of Arabia.

In return, the British promised him full support for the Arab independence movement, and even offered him the title of “King of the Arabs.” But once the war ended, the British and the French created the Sykes-Picot agreement to divide the Arab lands of Palestine, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon into their own colonial states. Feeling that the Arab cause has been betrayed, Sharif Hussein refused to ratify the treaty.

And thus, by letting the Saud-Wahhabi clan to invade, plunder, and occupy Mecca, Medina and the Hejaz, the British backstab Sharif Hussein once again, and practically chose a more obedient servant to guard the oil wells. Ibn Saud was later awarded a knighthood for his loyalty and service to the British crown, while Sharif Hussein had no choice but to flee into exile and eventually died in Jordan. Some Arabs point to the British support of Ibn Saud (instead of the Hashemite family) as the pivotal act that led to the crisis within Islam now.

After the state of Saudi Arabia was declared, Wahhabism was proclaimed as the official religion, where rigid sharia law is imposed in the kingdom. And in less than 100 years the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership destroyed the countries’ rich and mystic past, including 400-500 historical sites. The Prophet’s (PBUH) house, for example, was destroyed, homes of the Prophet’s wives are now parking lots and public toilet, while the house of the Prophet’s loyal companion Abubakr is now a site of a hotel.

Moreover, in the 1970s thanks to the abundant flood of oil revenues Saudi’s Ministry of Religious Affairs proclaimed Dawa Wahhabiyya (the Wahhabi Mission) and the royal family unleashed charities to fund Wahhabi schools, missionaries, and mosques across the world. Within 3 decades, Ward observed, the Saudis have launched 5 projects to spread Wahhabism:

  1. Pakistan 1977, when General Zia ul-Haq seized power he imposed sharia law and gave freedom in the country to create countless Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasas across the country to fill the gap of a collapsed education system and indoctrinate young children. They also targeted refugee camps full of Afghans fleeing from the Soviet invasion (this is where the Taliban were born).
  2. Afghanistan 1994, 50 of the indoctrinated Afghan refugees and their leader Mullah Omar launched out offensives to take back Afghanistan, taking Kabul in 1996. By 1997 Saudi employees were travelling there for free as tourists on government-paid holidays with their families, to “witness the true Islam.” In 1998 Mullah Omar was invited on Hajj by the Saudi monarch, and ordered to destroy Bamiyan Buddhas, which they did in March 2001, to comply with Wahhabi’s “no-icon” vision. The free tourism program ended abruptly on 11 September 2001.
  3. Al Qaeda’s global jihad financed by Wahhabi funders, which began in Afghanistan and climaxed with the 9/11 attack. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, including Osama bin Laden.
  4. ISIS. It began with US invasion on Iraq in 2003. The Shia-majority country was ruled by Sunni Saddam Hussein and his cronies, and after US invasion Shia Nouri Al Maliki became Prime Minister. The Sunni ex-Saddam loyalists were captured and radicalized in the many Iraqi prisons under US watch. And after their release, these loyalists turned into a Saudi-funded fighters against Shia government in Iraq and Shia Assad in Syria. Ward remarks, “when ISIS fighters entered newly captured Syrian towns and Iraqi villages, they burned the old secular schoolbooks. Starting with a clean slate, they gave the shell-shocked students fresh new textbooks, all imported from Saudi Arabia.”
  5. The spread of Wahhabism in the world, with Saudi money and Wahhabi-trained imams installed in Western Europe, from Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Marseilles to Birmingham. The Wahhabi mission also operates across the Middle East and North Africa, in Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia (which is comprehensively discussed in chapter 12), and other places in Europe such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania. As the book remark, “Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.” Over the next 4 decades since the 1970s, in non-Muslim-majority countries alone, Saudi Arabia have built 1359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 universities, and 2000 schools.

Curiously, the final US Senate report on 9/11 attack excluded 28 pages of evidence about Saudi Arabia’s connections to the hijackers. As Ward remarks, “[t]he pages revealed what we have known for a long time: Saudis officials had assisted some hijackers with funds once they came to America. After all, two hijackers had the phone number of the Aspen office of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud.”

Now what could possibly be the explanation for that censorship? The answer remains the same as for the British in the early 20th century as in today: oil. Today, thanks to their massive oil leverage the royal House of Saud plays the dangerous double game of becoming an ally of the West while simultaneously allowing funding into terrorist networks, in which Ward commented “[i]n Palermo, Sicilians pay for “protection” the same way.”

This book is surprisingly short for having such an abundant information (only 136 pages long), but it is very concise and so full of enlightening information that I’ve probably highlighted around 70% of the entire book. And there is no way of covering all the nuggets without over-exceeding the word count for this review. For example, after a thorough introduction of the rise of Wahhabism, it digs deeper into how exactly Wahhabi donations are being made, it links the Wahhabi money to the most unthink of connections such as the Mumbai attack 2008 or Boko Haram or the destruction of the many UNESCO heritage sites in Timbuktu (known as the city of 333 saints from its ancient Sufi tradition), and perhaps the most eye opening one for me is the connection between the House of Saud and Erdoğan in Turkey (which explains a lot of his behaviour and his supporters’ behaviour).

The book is not perfect, however, as I discovered in chapter 8 where the author shows a little too much affection for Ayatollah Khomeini (very respectfully paint him as the brilliant and compassionate leader of the Iranian revolution, while in truth he’s no different than the rigid Wahhabis). Ward also portray Shia as a non-violent followers of Ali, “the true heir of the succession”, while in reality nothing was set in stone and both Sunni and Shia have their fair share of violence. Hence, a small grain of salt is needed to put the objectivity of his views in its right place.

Nevertheless, it is still a very important piece of puzzle to read in order to understand the big picture of global terrorism, the never ending war in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic hardliners around the world, and the dynamics of global politics that come with it. And it is especially useful to learn the many contexts from the book, in order for me to fully understand the recent breaking news that MBS has been proven guilty by the US investigators of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, but with no further action has been taken so far by both the US and Turkey.