Saudi Wahhabi dilemma in spotlight after Paris attacks
RIYADH - Saudi Arabia’s harsh religious tradition is seen by many outsiders — and some Saudi liberals — as a root cause of the international jihadist threat that has engulfed the Middle East and now struck Paris.
But while Riyadh has cracked down on jihadists at home, jailing thousands, stopping hundreds from travelling to fight abroad and cutting militant finance streams, its approach to religion raises a dilemma.
It assails the ideology of militants who proclaim jihad against those they regard as infidels but ally with a clerical establishment that preaches intolerance, although not violence, against those same groups.
Wahhabism, the kingdom’s official ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim school, regards Shia Islam as heretical, lauds the concept of jihad and urges hatred of infidels. Its clerics run the Saudi justice system and have funds to spread their influence abroad.
“Muslims should be fair to non- Muslims. They can do business with them and should not attack them but that does not mean they should not hate them and avoid them,” a senior Saudi cleric said in a background discussion with Reuters.
For the government, focusing on that distinction, between accepting hatred and inciting violence, has let it retain the support of Wahhabi clergy and ultra-conservative Saudis while carrying out massive security operations against militants.
Modern jihadist organisations, including Islamic State (ISIS) and al- Qaeda, follow an extreme interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, of which Wahhabism was the original strain.
The Saudi government defends its record on combating Islamist radicalism, pointing to detention of thousands of suspected militants, intelligence sharing with allies and its barring of clergy who have praised militant attacks.
Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Mansour Turki rejects the idea that Wahhabism itself is a problem, comparing the 2,144 Saudis who had gone to Syria with the estimated 5,000 European Muslims who had done so. He said clerics and firebrands exhorting Muslims — including Saudis — to fight in Syria or Iraq were living in territory controlled by ISIS, not Saudi Arabia.
The Grand Mufti and the council of senior scholars denounced the Paris attacks and have for years decried militants as deviants and heretics. But Saudi clerics openly defame Shias as “rejectionists” and often refuse to accept them as Muslims.
Their teaching on jihad — that it is a blessed activity in defence of Islam against infidels and heretics that will reap rewards in heaven — differs from that of militant groups only in requiring the approval of the king and Saudi official clergy.
To outsiders and to liberal Saudi critics of the ruling Al Saud family, such intellectual gymnastics, reinforced in frequent clerical messages and a centrepiece of the kingdom’s militant rehabilitation programme, sometimes look like hair-splitting.
However, they fall squarely in the context of Saudi Arabia’s idiosyncratic internal politics, in which the unelected dynasty depends on Wahhabi clergy to support its legitimacy and often voices fears of a militant uprising against its rule.
Certainly, the biggest historical threats to stability in the world’s top oil exporter and the birthplace of Islam have come from conservatives reacting against liberalisation.
Most recently, that challenge came from al-Qaeda, which staged a series of deadly attacks in the last decade. Those shootings and bombings, which killed hundreds, prompted Saudi authorities to address militancy among the clergy and introduce reforms aimed at encouraging tolerance and getting more young Saudis into jobs.
The dynasty’s critics counter that state-financed clergy are more pliant to the ruling family’s wishes than they appear and that the Al Saud holds up the threat of militancy to avoid making reforms that could ultimately endanger its own power.
Over the decades, the positions of official clergy have softened and the Wahhabi tent is broad enough to include firebrands as well as clerics who are comfortable engaging with the West and modern ideas.
Although Saudi Arabia finances preachers, mosques and madrassas around the world, and although Salafism has become common among Muslims globally, Saudi Arabia’s own influence in the movement has become diluted.
Its Umm al-Qura seminary in Medina remains one of the principal centres of Salafist learning for international students but its graduates have no greater clout than those of institutions in other countries.
“The Salafi scene has become so fragmented and diverse across the world that the Saudis don’t control it any more. When people go to study Salafism, they don’t go there, and what they study is a Salafism over which the Saudis have no control,” said Stephane Lacroix, author of books on Salafism and Saudi Islam.
Among militants, Saudi religious influence is even less pronounced. Jihadists often turn to texts written by long-dead Wahhabi scholars and they often adopt a Saudi style of oratory in their religious speeches but they mock the kingdom’s modern clergy as puppets of a corrupt, pro- Western regime.